Dance like nobody’s watching…because they’re not

On Good Friday this year, a friend of mine died after a two-year battle with ovarian cancer. She was 61 years old and had just recently begun her third round of chemotherapy.

I enjoyed our conversations about nature, healthy living (though I didn’t always follow it), the work of Thoreau, and parenting. We shared similar outlooks on the trappings of our world, and the meaning of it all.

On a fairly regular basis, she would offer quotes from her favorite poets and thinkers, whether I asked for them or not. Some of the time, the quotes were her originals. For example, “Life is simple, but it’s never easy” is something she told me all the time. She meant that being a good steward of the gifts one has been given—our loved ones, our bodies, our world—was a very basic tenant of a good life, but so terribly difficult to do on a continual basis.

Her “20/40/60” rule is also something that she shared often. As she was closing in on 60 at the time, she’d tell me that “When you’re 20, you worry about what everybody thinks about you. At 40, you stop worrying. And at 60, you realize they were never paying any attention to you in the first place.”

It’s a thought that brings a smile to my face. I’d love to think that people don’t pay any attention to me.

But is that really true?

In a 2000 research article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a team of psychologists led by Drs. Tom Gilovich and Kenneth Savitsky (and including Cornell doctoral student Justin Kruger, whose lab I would later work in at the University of Illinois) put this idea to the test. How much do people really pay attention to us?

They examined this idea through a group of controlled experiments. The first involved a college student walking into a crowded lecture hall with an embarrassing T-shirt. The researchers determined that, among college students, fandom for singer Barry Manilow was perceived to be quite embarrassing. So, in the study, the T-shirt was emblazoned with a large picture of the crooner’s mug. The experiment was simple. The student was asked what percentage of the others would notice his or her embarrassing shirt. The guess? Approximately 50 percent. The researchers then interviewed the students in the lecture hall to identify what percentage actually observed the Manilow T-shirt. The answer: 25 percent.

The second study was set up in a very similar manner to the first one: A student wearing a T-shirt walking into a lecture hall. This time, however, the face on the shirt was of someone for whom the wearers thought they may receive positive attention. Martin Luther King, Jr., Jerry Seinfeld, or Bob Marley was chosen. Again, wearers felt that roughly 50 percent of the other students in the lecture hall would identify the shirt. In reality, less than 10 percent did.

The third and final study focused on our behavior, rather than appearance. Participants worked on group projects and then were asked to rate how memorable their contributions—both positive and negative—had been. The result? Raters consistently overestimated how much their groupmates remembered either type of contribution.

This phenomenon is referred to as the spotlight effect. In a simple explanation, our own egocentrism clouds our ability to correctly judge how much people pay attention to us. We fret over our faux paus and bask in the glory of a job well done, and we expect others to do the same for us. But they don’t.

So we have empirical proof that my friend was right. But is this knowledge common for people her age, or was she some type of sage?

As the T-shirt studies involved college students, I do wonder if an older subject pool would yield different results. If you sent a 70-year-old man into McDonald’s with a Kanye West T-shirt, would he overestimate the percentage of his coffee-drinking buddies that would notice his goofy shirt? I have reached out to Dr. Gilovich for his thoughts on this question and will report back an answer if I receive one.

For now, though, I will relish the fact that no one’s paying any attention to me. The next time I’m at a wedding, I’m definitely going to hit the dance floor with no reservations. Egocentrism won’t hold be holding me back. And besides, in addition to human nature, there are typically other factors that keep people from remembering anything from a wedding reception.

Even more reason to let it all hang out.

  1. Gilovich, T., Medvec, V. H., & Savitsky, K. (2000). The spotlight effect in social judgment: An egocentric bias in estimates of the salience of one’s own actions and appearance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(02), 211–222
  2. Denton-Mendoza, R. (2012, June 05). The spotlight effect.

Hair and the highest office in the land

Dr. Ben Carson was never going to be President. The American people wouldn’t allow it. No way. No how. Seventeen Republican candidates began campaigns for the highest office in the land. He was the only one with a distinguishable physical difference. Just look at him. You think we would elect someone who looks like him?

Wait, you thought I was talking about his skin color? Of course not—we have an African-American President, silly.

I’m talking about another group who has faced a reemergence in American society but still faces a glass ceiling (and not women, either). I’m talking about the bearded.

Ben Carson was the only 2016 Presidential contender who sported a beard, albeit a razor thin mustache and goatee.

And given the history of men elected to the Presidency, I’d say it had a great deal to do with his loss. We just don’t send people with facial hair to the White House. We rarely send men with facial hair to Washington, D.C. in any capacity and we’ve never elected such a woman.

The first Presidents—Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe—were as smooth-faced as my two-year-old. John Quincy Adams, the sixth President, maybe as a sign of a new generation of office holders, did let his sideburns grow a little long. Eight years after he left office, Martin Van Buren pushed the envelope a little farther with his unruly mutton chops.

But a real beard was something that was not seen. I imagine a few of the Presidents after Van Buren, the career Army general and frontier types (James Polk, Zachary Taylor, and William Henry Harrison come to mind) probably grew a mean beard at some point in their lives, but not even stubble was part of any Presidential portrait.

It’d take a man of real fortitude to sport a full beard in the White House. You know, the kind that would also oversee a civil war and attempt to eradicate slavery. Many of you know Abraham Lincoln for his Emancipation Proclamation, his address at Gettysburg, his assassination at Ford’s Theatre, his height, his honesty, or his stove top hat. But he was also the first President to sport a beard, in his case a chin curtain, while in office. And as leaders so often do, he created followers.

A strange series of events occurred following Lincoln’s assassination, events that can only be connected when viewed through the prism of facial hair.

Andrew Johnson, who ascended to the big seat upon Lincoln’s murder, did not follow the slain leader’s facial hair example. He was clean-shaved, but he was also impeached (though not convicted), so maybe he should have grown a beard.

The next seven presidents, if you include Grover Cleveland twice, all sported, at the very least, a mustache. Four—Grant, Hayes, Garfield, and Harrison—had full beards. Chester Arthur sported some aggressive sidewhiskers connected by a mustache, which could also be classified as an overgrown friendly muttonchops look. Cleveland simply had a mustache.

William McKinley moved into the White House in 1897 as the first clean-shaven President in 28 years. He was also shot and killed in Buffalo, N.Y. four years later.

So of the two smooth-faced chief executives to take the reins in the 36 years following Lincoln’s death, one was impeached and the other was killed.

It gets weirder.

With McKinley’s death, New York Republican Theodore Roosevelt took over the big job, wearing a thick mustache. His hand-chosen successor, William Howard Taft, famous for his girth, was also the proud owner of a nice handlebar.

Woodrow Wilson followed Taft. A Princeton academic and former Governor of New Jersey, the Democratic Wilson was without facial hair. Near the middle of his second term, he suffered a debilitating stroke that was hidden from the public and that many believe left his wife, Edith, in charge of the country.

Next up was Warren Harding, a clean-shaven Ohioan. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage about two-and-a-half years into his first term, in 1923.

When Calvin Coolidge, Harding’s successor, finished his second term in 1929, he became the first clean-shaven President since James Buchanan in 1861 to finish his tenure in office relatively unscathed. No assassination, impeachment, debilitating stroke, or deadly hemorrhage.

How does one make sense of something so random, and yet seemingly so calculated? Well, blame it on the cosmos. The cosmos were probably angry about the bearded Lincoln’s death and spent the next 58 years seeking retribution on the beardless. Now you may point out that it was the mustachioed John Wilkes Booth that killed Lincoln, so why would the cosmos be angry with the beardless? My response: never let details get in the way of an interesting theory.

Given the subject of last week’s column, you may remember that it wasn’t as if the bearded were without trouble. President James Garfield, who wore a full beard, was shot while in office. But it’s interesting to note that the man who was in charge of his care was Dr. Willard Bliss. While Dr. Bliss sported a pair of bushy mutton chops, he did not have a full beard. The unsanitary medical practices that Bliss employed in his search for the bullet have been credited as the true cause of Garfield’s death, not the injuries from the bullet itself. If he had simply let the fully-bearded Garfield to his own devices, he probably had a greater chance of living. Bliss could have also granted the very hairy Alexander Graham Bell greater access in his attempts to find the bullet with Graham’s newly-developed metal detector. Either choice, both of which involved someone with more facial hair than Bliss, would have been better than what Bliss did.

Now back to the clean-shaven Presidents. One could argue that Woodrow Wilson effectively ended what I term the Bearded Age of the American Presidency. He defeated major contenders Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft in 1912 and the Van Dyke-sporting Charles Evans Hughes in 1916. But I’d say the Bearded Age didn’t end until the cosmos were satisfied. And so, Calvin Coolidge, famous for his silence and conservatism, was the President that brought about the end of the Bearded Age.

Since that time, a major party has only nominated one Presidential candidate with any facial hair whatsoever. That man was Thomas Dewey, the wearer of a well-groomed mustache, and he was nominated in both 1944 and 1948. He first lost to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and was famously defeated by Harry Truman in the latter election.

So to recap: America voted only clean-shaven men into the Presidential office from 1786-1856. In 1860 Lincoln sported the first beard in office and set a trend that would last for approximately five decades. The only people to stray from that pattern were killed or impeached. William Howard Taft was the last American President to have facial hair and the first two after him suffered deadly or significantly-impairing medical issues while in office. From 1912 to today, we have not had a President with facial hair.

I think that should change. It’s too late for 2016, but how about 2020? America is becoming more progressive and barriers are falling all over the place. Let’s give hope to all those young children who dream of becoming President of the United States of America, but whose achievement of that goal is so often derailed by their yearning to grow a beard.

This is America, where people of all races, genders, creeds, and yes, facial hair designs, should be free to chase their dreams.

You hear that sound? I think that’s the glass ceiling shattering.


Garfield provides blueprint for 2016 Republican dark horses

After the second (or third, depending on the channel) edition of the media-labeled Super Tuesday round of voting, Hillary Clinton, facing a limited pool of competitors with little national name recognition from the outset, has all but wrapped up the Democratic nomination after a valiant (and still ongoing fight) by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. However, the other side of aisle has been the subject of much speculation, as real estate tycoon Donald Trump has secured the highest number of delegates, but in a much more fractured race, is not on pace to claim the needed 1237 delegates to earn the Republican nomination before the party’s convention this summer. With two other active candidates in the race (Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Ohio Governor John Kasich) and many Republican leaders and party members concerned with a Trump nomination, the idea of a contested convention has received increasing attention.

And while many scoff at delegates and party leaders muting the voices of the electorate, it’s not as if the nomination process has always worked smoothly. Take 1880, for example.

In June of that year, as Republican delegates descended upon the recently fire-ravaged and rebuilt city of Chicago, there were three leading contenders for the presidential nomination. On the one hand, a plurality of delegates supported the candidacy of former two-term President Ulysses S. Grant. Grant had left office in 1876 before jet-setting (not literally) around the world. While he had wide support, he had his opposition, primarily raised by those who did not want to break the two-term precedent set by George Washington.

But much like anti-Trump voters can’t fully unite against him today, those opposing Grant could not agree on a single candidate, instead spreading their votes among two: Maine Senator James Blaine and Secretary of State John Sherman of Ohio. Blaine stood as the stiffest challenger to the renomination of Grant, but the small group of Sherman supporters remained steadfast.

One of those supporters was Ohio Representative and Senator-elect James Garfield. Garfield had earned a stellar reputation over his 18 years in the House of Representatives, becoming the chamber’s leading Republican. He had an impeccable record as a brigadier general in the Civil War, attorney, and before that had served as a professor of ancient languages and literature—while enrolled as a sophomore—at what is now known as Hiram College in Ohio. He would be addressing the gathered crowd in Chicago to urge voters to choose Sherman.

So the day came for Garfield’s speech amidst the contentious proceedings. He took the podium and began his wonderfully eloquent argument for his friend and fellow Ohioan’s candidacy. Consider his opening paragraph as he addressed the state of the fractured convention (I’d say our collective rhetorical and oratorical skills have eroded since then):

“I have witnessed the extraordinary scenes of this Convention with deep solicitude. Nothing touches my heart more quickly than a tribute of honor to a great and noble character; but as I sat in my seat and witnessed this demonstration, this assemblage seemed to me a human ocean in tempest. I have seen the sea lashed into fury and tossed into spray, and its grandeur moves the soul of the dullest man; but I remember that it is not the billows, but the calm level of the sea, from which all heights and depths are measured. When the storm has passed and the hour of calm settles on the ocean, when the sunlight bathes its peaceful surface, then the astronomer and surveyor take the level from which they measure all terrestrial heights and depths.”

And then he spoke his third paragraph:

“Not here, in this brilliant circle, where fifteen thousand men and women are gathered, is the destiny of the Republic to be decreed for the next four years. Not here, where I see the enthusiastic faces of seven hundred and fifty-six delegates, waiting to cast their lots into the urn and determine the choice of the Republic, but by four millions of Republican firesides, where the thoughtful voters, with wives and children about them, with the calm thoughts inspired by love of home and country, with the history of the past, the hopes of the future, and reverence for the great men who have adorned and blessed our nation in days gone by, burning in their hearts,—there God prepares the verdict which will determine the wisdom of our work to-night. Not in Chicago, in the heat of June, but at the ballot-boxes of the Republic, in the quiet of November, after the silence of deliberate judgment, will this question be settled. And now, gentlemen of the Convention, what do we want?”

This is where the convention took a decided turn. Garfield surely intended his question as a rhetorical device. But instead one in the crowd answered: “Garfield.” Then another, and another. Soon, Garfield’s speech was impeded by a barrage of vocal supporters.

Several rounds of voting proved unsuccessful in any one candidate receiving the necessary 379 delegates. Garfield’s name first appeared on the 34th ballot when the Wisconsin delegation switched their votes in his favor. Eventually, on the 36th vote, the delegations from several states switched their votes to Garfield, giving him 399 votes and the nomination. The Ohio Representative had earned the nomination without even throwing his name into the ring.

He wrote to his wife, Lucretia, who treasured her quiet life back in Ohio, and asked her to consider the nomination. Imagine that conversation.

Garfield accepted the nomination and won the presidency in November over Democrat Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock.

Lucretia’s life would never be the same as her husband was shot by crazy man Charles Guiteau in July of 1881, just months after being sworn in to office. In her bestselling book, The Destiny of the Republic, author Candice Millard makes the compelling case that his medical care was incompetent and the invasive and unsanitary attempts to retrieve the bullet led to his death in September of that year.

So wild things can and have happened at national conventions. Delegates are only obligated to vote the way of the electorate on the first ballot and then are free to change. As such, rumors of politicians jockeying for those votes have been swirling.

If Donald Trump is unable to secure the nomination and the GOP heads to a contested convention, I’ll be listening carefully to people like Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, or Paul Ryan. It could get pretty exciting if any of them try to end a paragraph of their speech with the phrase “gentleman of the convention, what do we want?” They might get a surprise—or the answer they’ve desired all along.

  1. James Garfield. (2014). Retrieved March 18, 2016, from
  2. Schlafly, P. (2007, December 26). Dark Horse Looks Good in GOP Presidential Race | Human Events. Retrieved March 18, 2016, from
  3. His Speech Nominating Sherman for President by James Abram Garfield. America: III. (1861-1905). Vol. X. Bryan, William Jennings, ed. 1906. The World’s Famous Orations
  5. Millard, C. (2011). The destiny of the republic: A tale of madness, medicine and the murder of a president. New York: Doubleday.
  6. Murder of a President [Television series episode]. (2016, February 2). In American Experience. PBS.

Eyes, lies, and the journey of Margaret Keane

During the 1960s, after nearly 30 years of painting and art education, artist Margaret Keane struck a chord with art buyers. Her works were not appreciated by the cultural elite, but nevertheless made plenty of money. Her soulful portraits, with their deep and jarringly large eyes, were referred to as “big-eyed waifs.” While this would give many artists great joy, for Keane, it was the beginning of life as a prisoner. Her husband, Walter, seeing a golden opportunity with big eyes of his own, was selling the paintings with his name, while locking Margaret up, forcing her to paint under his demands.

Margaret, who was born in 1927 in Tennessee, met Walter Keane at an outdoor art market in San Francisco in the mid-1950s. Both had been married previously, both had a child. Walter worked in real estate but had a great interest in art, having studied in Paris. Margaret encouraged this passion, and after the couple was married, he began working full-time in the art business.

The two seemed like a natural pair. She painted, while he sold her work at a San Francisco beatnik club known as The Hungry i. Walter, however, was not giving his wife artistic credit. The paintings were labeled as being by “Keane.”

While accompanying her husband to a sale at the club, Margaret realized what was happening. After she confronted him, Walter convinced his wife to go along with the charade. He tried to learn to paint like her, but never could.

The paintings became successful after Walter got into a fight with a woman at The Hungry i. The subsequent trial made the paintings well-known and soon they were in high demand. Walter would charge up to $50,000 per painting for originals and mass production of the artwork began, as well. Though critics panned the work as “kitschy” because of the seeming disconnect between the masculine Walter and the soft, weepy orphans he painted, many people paid good money for “Keane eyes.”

As the popularity grew, millions of dollars were being made, and Walter’s self-promotion increased. He once boasted that “Nobody could paint eyes like El Greco, and nobody can paint eyes like Walter Keane.” But his grip on Margaret increased, as well.

From a New York Times interview with Keane:

“I’d have to lock the door of the paint room,” she says. “He wouldn’t allow anyone in. I was like a prisoner.”

The money and joy were flowing for Walter, but Margaret’s misery could not be contained. Her paintings became sadder, tears featured more regularly. From the NYT:

“Gradually it dawned on me that I was painting my own inner emotions. Those children were asking: ‘Why are we here? What is life all about? Why is there sadness and injustice?’ All those deep questions. Those children were sad because they didn’t have the answers. They were searching.”

All that searching led Margaret to leave Walter in 1965. Walter was not only a plagiarist, but also emotionally abusive, isolating Margaret with her work. While out selling art and receiving adoration, he drank heavily and womanized. After threatening Margaret’s and her daughter’s life, she obtained a legal separation.

A new decade brought new courage for Margaret. She credits her faith as a Jehovah’s Witness and her new husband for much of this. During a radio interview in 1970, she shocked the world by confessing to the ruse and taking credit for the work.

The two exes battled in the public forum until Margaret sued Walter and the USA Today for defamation in 1985 after the newspaper published an article in which Walter called her a liar. As part of the ensuing trial, a paint-off was staged. Before a jury, Walter and Margaret were asked to paint in the famous “big-eyed” or “Keane eyes” style. Walter withdrew due to a shoulder injury. Margaret completed her portrait in 53 minutes and was awarded $4 million in damages.

Unfortunately for Margaret, Walter had blown all of the money he made from her work and she never saw the money.

Adam Parfrey co-wrote a book on the Keanes in 2014 after penning an article on the scandal in the 1990s. He spoke to the L.A. Times shortly thereafter and had some interesting recollections of the time he spent with Walter before his penniless and obscure death in 2000.

“It was absurd. He kept comparing himself to Michelangelo. He doubled down on the whole lie.”

Parfrey stated that, when speaking of Margaret, Walter became bitter and vicious. He called her a liar and claimed she had had sex with a car hop on their wedding day. He even repeatedly asked questions of Parfrey about his sex life and offered suggestions to improve it.

Parfrey sums up the interaction: “He was really crazy.”

As for Margaret, she is still painting at the age of 88 in California. She told the L.A. Times that she no longer paints the weepy orphans that she did 50 years ago, in part because she herself is much happier.

“Now, I try to paint happy children and animals playing together in paradise scenes, like here in L.A., looking out the window. Beautiful.”

She has transitioned from hopeless to hopeful. From a New York Times interview:

“A lot of art today doesn’t convey much hope, and I hope mine does,” she says. “I try to paint what I think the future holds and my innermost feelings about God’s promise for the future.”

  1. “Margaret Keane.” Ed. Editors. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 11 Mar. 2016.
  2. Gelt, Jessica. “A “real” Portrait of “Big Eyes” Artist Margaret Keane.” Los Angeles Times 21 Dec. 2014: n. pag. Print.
  3. Spindler, Amy. “An Eye for an Eye.” The New York Times 23 May 1999: n. pag. Print.

Watch out boy, they’ll chew you up

The Tsavo region of Kenya is a savannah that sits near the conjunction of its namesake river and the Athi River. While the name Tsavo means “place of slaughter” after an ancient battle between the Maasai and Akamba tribes, the region is better known for a slaughter of a different kind: an 1898 rampage by a pair of man-eating lions.

The area is home to a unique group of lions, known as Tsavo lions, who have short or nonexistent manes and smooth pelts. Bruce Patterson, a zoologist, tells the Smithsonian Magazine that because the region is hotter and drier than other areas of Africa, the lions do not have the large manes of their cousins throughout the continent.

In the late 19th century, Lenny Flank writes that the British began construction of a 580-mile railway from Mombasa to Uganda, in what was, at that time, their colonial territory. Laborers from India, or coolies, were shipped to the site to complete the work with British Army Colonel John Henry Patterson brought in to supervise the project.

In 1898, they reached the Tsavo River. In order to complete this bridge, temporary bridges were built and crews were scattered. In short time, men began to go missing. Patterson received stories of a lion attacking camps, but dismissed him—until the evidence was undeniable, with limbs and heads often being found outside of camp.

The Smithsonian Magazine quotes a worker at the site:

“Hundreds of men fell victim to these savage creatures, whose very jaws were steeped in blood. Bones, flesh, skin and blood, they devoured all, and left not a trace behind them.”

The crews had begun building thorny fences of Acacia around their camps with fires burning through the night, but to no avail. The lions tore through tents and dragged out men. There is a tale of a lion snagging a mattress from under a man, pulling it out of the tent and running off when it realized its mistake.

The crews began referring to the two lions as “The Ghost” and “The Darkness.”

Col. Patterson eventually took action. He used a railway car with cattle inside as bait, while he sat with a rifle ready to shoot. A lion entered the railway car at night, killed a cow, but struggled to get the carcass through the Acacia fence. Instead, it went after Patterson himself, who was able to wound the lion with a shot to the mouth. Both escaped alive, and neither were deterred.

Patterson built a mechanical trap inside the railway car, hoping to again lure the cat in and ensnare them. It took several weeks before a cat entered, instead continuing to target the camp and eating a few men in the interim.

One night in December 1898, a lion finally was trapped by the railcar mechanism, but despite several close-proximity shots, was able to escape. Policemen went out in search of it, but the lion returned a few nights later, where Patterson had placed a donkey as bait. The lion took no interest in the donkey, targeting the Colonel instead. Two rifle shots later, the animal was dead.

His friend would prove to be a tougher kill.

After a goat was killed one night, Col. Patterson placed as bait three more goats tied to a railroad tie. The lion was able to kill the goat and pull it, along with the railroad tie, away from the site. Patterson fired twice, but missed.

The railroad tie and goat blood served to create a trail that the men then followed. They found the lion, but it ran off. Patterson then waited for its return, which it made the next night. He fired twice, hitting it twice.

When the group stalked the animal the next day, they were unsuccessful. When it did not return for almost two weeks, Col. Patterson believed it had died. But he did not assume. He was on the lookout each night and sought confirmation of its status.

He received confirmation on Dec. 28, 1898, when the lion returned to attempt an attack on a crew member sleeping in a tree. Luckily for the man, Col. Patterson was near the tree, waiting with rifle in hand. He again wounded the lion with two shots, but it still ran away.

This time, however, Patterson and his crew were able to track the animal. The lion did not run this time, but attempted to attack. Patterson shot it two more times, finally killing it.

Patterson sold the two man-eating lions to the Chicago Field Museum for $5000 apiece and write an account of his tale, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, at the urging of wildlife and adventure-enthusiast President Theodore Roosevelt.

The number of attacks during this time has ranged from 28 to 135. The previously-mentioned zoologist Bruce Patterson (no relation to the Colonel) and his team used chemical analysis on hair and skin samples from the two lions to determine that they had eaten approximately 35 men, or about half their diet in the nine months preceding their deaths.

An International Business Times article reported that the Tsavo lions are still attacking and killing humans, the latest rampage occurring during more railway work in the very same region as the 1898 attacks.

With so much death, many are attempting to explain the behavior.

One popular notion traces the behavior back many years. For hundreds of years, the Arab slave caravans passed through the region. Death numbers were very high as a result of the tsetse fly and other diseases. The bodies of these slaves were not buried, but rather dumped throughout the savannah, and it is possible that these lions acquired a taste for humans. This would explain the general man-eating tendencies of lions in this region.

Looking specifically at the 1898 killings, Bruce Patterson and others posit the theory that the natural prey of the lions in the area–buffalo, antelopes, and the like–had been wiped out in 1898 by rinderpest disease.

It is also thought that the ritualistic cremation practiced by the Hindu railway workers lured the lions to the area or that damage to their teeth and skulls could have forced them to target humans (though some of this damage could also be the result of Col. Patterson’s numerous rifle shots).

But what is known is that these famous man-eating lions gave new—and terrifying—meaning to Tsavo, “the place of slaughter” and for a few months in 1898, served to derail British colonial pursuits. We in America fought off the British with classical education and well-armed militias. The people of Kenya had man-eating lions.

  1. Patterson, J. H. The Man-eaters of Tsavo, and Other East African Adventures. N.p., 1919. Web. 12 Feb. 2016.
  2. Flank, Lenny. “Tsavo Man-Eaters: The True Story of the Ghost and the Darkness.” Daily Kos. N.p., April 9 2014. Web. 12 Feb. 2016.
  3. Raffaele, Paul. “Man-Eaters of Tsavo.” Smithsonian. N.p., Jan. 2010. Web. 12 Feb. 2016.
  4. Kossof, Julian. “Kenya: Man-eating lions of Tsavo return to strike terror into railway workers.” International Business Times. N.p., May 30, 2015. Web. 12 Feb. 2016.


Sailing to the edge of the world

The names of important explorers are common to us: Columbus, Magellan, Hudson, Cartier, de Gama. We learn these names beginning in the early days of grade school. We learn the names of their ships, the lands they discovered, and the governments that funded them. But a man who helped usher in the golden age of explorers, and therefore should receive more acknowledgement than he does, is Portuguese explorer Gil Eanes.

In the 15th century, superstition and errant thinking regarding our world were rampant. The flat earth theory was dying, but circumnavigation had not yet been completed. There were numerous myths regarding sea monsters and the equatorial heat of the sun boiling water and burning ships. Galileo had yet to declare the Sun as the center of our solar system.

Also at this time, European countries were interested in Africa, but a small parcel of land jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean created more trouble than it would seem to warrant: The Cape of Bojador. Stories circulated of sailors losing their ships and their lives in the seas off the coast. Navigational tools would not work and ships were allegedly met by boiling seas and monsters. It was also thought that any Christian who attempted to pass would be turned black. God’s creation was the earth—firm, navigable. The sea was the devil’s work—shaky, unknown. The Cape of Bojador, which means “father of danger” in the Arabic, represented the furthest extent of Christian knowledge of the world.

Despite these suspicions, Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator was adamant that the western coast of Africa be opened up. He had sailed to the region himself in his earlier years and was fascinated by the culture, the possibility of a trade route for gold, stopping piracy, and converting Muslims. Fifteen attempts to safely pass Cape Bojador had failed in the 12 years prior to him sending Captain Gil Eanes to the region in 1433.

Eanes was born in 1395 in Lagos, Portugal, and grew up as a squire in Prince Henry’s household. He later attended a navigational school established by the prince.

In 1433, Eanes added to the list of failures. He reached the Canary Islands before returning due to strong winds. Prince Henry felt confident enough with the voyage’s prospects of success that he sent Eanes again the next year. There could be no failure. From Prince Henry:

“And if there were even any truth in these stories that they tell, I would not blame you, but you come to me with the tales of four seamen who perhaps know the voyage to the Low Countries or some other coasting route, but, except for this, don’t know how to use needle or sailing chart. Go out again and heed them not, for by God’s help, fame and profit must come from your voyage, if you will but persevere.”

Many sailors at the time had, when encountering the Cape’s northeast winds, began to sail closer to the shore. There they struggled with dense fog and shallow waters filled with sardines rising to the surface–which caused bubbles to form and gave credence to the boiling water myth. Combine those factors with nearby ferrous rocks interrupting navigational tools, and you see why so many sailors met their demise along this seemingly mild geographical landmark.

Eanes took a different approach however, staying further away from the shore, and navigated the Cape without incident.

Henry the Navigator wanted his sailors to bring back people from the new territories they explored so they could be examined (and converted). It was also to provide proof of their journeys, but Eanes and his crew found no one in the desolate Sahara. Instead, he returned with Santa Maria roses.

But the most important possession Eanes returned with was a shifted mindset on what lay beyond Cape Bojador. In the translated writing of Gomes Eanes de Zurara:

“From that trip disregarding all danger, doubled the cable beyond, where he (Eanes) found the things quite the opposite of what he and others hitherto assumed.”

The voyage served to propel Henry the Navigator’s maritime program, which would send explorers around the world in search of new lands, people, and resources.

It is true that these expeditions often led to bloody battles, pillages, and slavery. But what is also true is that the bravery to sail into the face of danger—the fear of sea monsters, boiling waters, abnormal winds—led to the eradication of assumptions.

  1. The Project Gutenberg eBook of Prince Henry the Navigator, the Hero of Portugal and of Modern Discovery, 1394-1460 A.D., by C. Raymond Beazley
  2. Gil Eanes Dobra O Cabo Bojador.” Gil Eanes Dobra O Cabo Bojador. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Feb. 2016.



Boorns, barns, bones, and a living dead person

Colder weather has not been the only thing gripping the country these past few days. A Netflix original documentary series, Making a Murderer, has sent shockwaves through the country, leading to thousands of petitioners requesting the pardon of Wisconsin inmates Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey, sentenced to life without parole for the murder of an Auto Trader photographer in 2005.

What has made this case so intriguing is the Wisconsin law enforcement system’s handling of the investigation and trial. I won’t spoil the entire series, but questions arose when Avery, who was wrongfully convicted of a sexual assault by this same county prosecutor’s office in 1985 and spent 18 years in jail, was in the midst of a $36 million wrongful conviction suit against the county sheriff’s department when he and his teenage nephew Dassey were arrested for murder. What followed was at its worst, a story of corruption and revenge, or, at its best, complete and reckless ineptitude on the part of the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department. Opinions vary.

In this country, the first case of wrongful conviction in a murder trial (that was proven in a court system) began in 1812.

That was the year Russell Colvin, a resident of Machester, Vt., went missing. Scrutiny was immediately focused on his two brothers-in-law, Jesse and Stephen Boorn, as they had made no secret of their disdain for him. Colvin had married their sister and worked with them on the family farm, and the Boorn brothers felt that he was a lazy, no-good leech.

With no evidence even suggesting that Colvin was dead, the brothers were free for seven years when the supernatural intervened. Amos Boorn, Jesse and Stephen’s uncle, went public with the claim that Colvin’s ghost had visited him in a dream. He told Boorn that he had been killed, but never told him who the killers were. He did, however, tell him that his remains were located in a cellar hole located in a potato field on the family farm. Suddenly the stone cold case went blazing hot.

Investigators looked through the cellar and found broken shards of pots and other items. Sally Boorn Colvin, widow to Russell and sister to Jesse and Stephen, identified the items as belong to her late husband. There was a motive behind her response—she had a child out of wedlock more than nine months after her husband’s disappearance. Under the law at the time, any child born to a married woman was assumed to belong to her husband. But if her husband was dead, she could collect financial support from the real father. Her husband being declared dead was good for Mrs. Colvin.

It was terrible, however, for her two brothers. Shortly after the investigation of the cellar, a barn burned on the property. And a few days after that, a dog uncovered bone fragments nearby. Local physicians verified that they were human remains. Conspiracy theorists went wild with speculation that Jesse and Stephen had been moving the body around the farm and burned the barn to destroy evidence. Arrest warrants were issued for the two men. Jesse, who was living in the area, was apprehended quickly and thrown in jail, while Stephen was living in New York.

Jesse’s cellmate took the opportunity to better his own circumstances by telling authorities that Jesse had confessed to him. Shortly after a visit from Barney Boorn, Jesse and Stephen’s father, the cellmate stated that Jesse told him that it was Stephen who clubbed Colvin while in the heat of an argument, when the elder Boorn walked by. Barney then finished the job by slitting Colvin’s throat with a pen knife before all three buried the body in the cellar. A few years later, they moved the remains to the barn. After that burned, they dug up the bones, and moved them to the site where the dog found them a few days later. The cellmate offered his cooperation in exchange for his immediate release, which was granted.

Jesse’s legal situation was looking perilous. So, in a calculated effort to minimize his sentence and shield his father from prosecution, Jesse confessed to the crime, but didn’t take full responsibility. He informed authorities that it was Stephen who spearheaded the slaying.

But that tale did not jive with the story Stephen would soon tell. Located in New York, Stephen travelled voluntarily to his home state of Vermont to clear his name. Jesse recanted, but the backtrack was disregarded.

Soon faced with mounting witnesses declaring that the men had acted in manners that suggested they knew Colvin was dead and had been fighting with him on the day he disappeared, Stephen also confessed to the killing, but stated that it was in self-defense.

Stephen and Jesse were not aided by their defense attorneys, who, along with everyone else, assumed their guilt. There is speculation that Stephen, a man of low intelligence, could not have written the confession that damned him.

Despite the fact that the physicians that declared the bones to be human changed their minds when presented with a real human leg bone, the Boorns were convicted of Colvin’s murder. Stephen was ultimately sentenced to death, while Jesse received life in prison.

But the Boorn brothers’ fate would change.

In November 1819, Tabor Chadwick, a traveler from New Jersey, heard a New York Post article, which focused on the role of the divine intercessor in the Boorn case, being read aloud in the lobby of his hotel. The article referred to Russell Colvin, which rang a bell for Chadwick. He knew a Russell Colvin who lived in New Jersey and often spoke of Vermont.

Chadwick wrote letters to the postmaster of Manchester, Vt., and the Post. The postmaster of Manchester happened to be one of the Boorn brothers’ attorneys, but was discarded. The Post published the letter in December. Stephen was scheduled to hang in January of the next year.

A reader, a man by the name of James Whelpley, was from Manchester but living in New York. He travelled to the town in which Colvin was then living and, with a young woman was bait, tricked and manipulated Colvin into returning to Vermont, which he did not want to do.

Upon the arrival and verification of Colvin, authorities had no choice but to release Stephen and Jesse Boorn. The murdered lived and the jailed freed.

This case, as well as the Making a Murderer case, represents how difficult it can be to ensure a fair trial when one side is hell-bent on a particular outcome and the other side lies down (though the Avery case could be more heinous than that). Combine that with a raging public that is often willing to be led to their own conclusions, and you have a recipe for injustice.

While much discussion was focused on the role the divine ghost played in leading the Boorns to conviction, it appears the real angels eventually succeeded in their defense.

  1. First Wrongful Conviction (Center on Wrongful Convictions: Bluhm Legal Clinic, Northwestern University School of Law)
  2. Jesse Boorn and Stephen Boorn (Vermont History Myths Legends and Resource Guide)

Terror in the House of Reps

Imagine the scene: disgruntled foreign nationals, armed with semi-automatic pistols, storm the doors of a well-known public institution and begin firing on the surprised, and trapped, crowd. Their goal is to make a point. To bring their cause the attention they believe it deserves.

Scenes similar to this are filling newspapers and newscasts all too frequently. But the scene I have in my mind isn’t from last week. Or last month. It’s from March 1, 1954. The foreign nationals are not from the Middle East, but from Puerto Rico. And the public institution was the United States House of Representatives.

Puerto Rico had been struggling for independence for years, finally achieving free status, they believed with the approval of the 1898 Charter of Autonomy with Spain. Shortly thereafter, the United States defeated Spain and received the island in the Treaty of Paris.

How could a previously free country be handed over for rule by a country that no longer owned it? That’s a good question and one that fueled the creation and rise of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party.

Throughout the next half-century, Puerto Ricans continued to bristle at U.S. rule. According to Federico Ribes Tovar’s book “A Chronological History of Puerto Rico,” America’s influence on and power over the country’s sugar production led to increasing conflict, to the point that on several occasions, blood was spilled. Protesters were killed by authorities in a 1937 parade and in 1950, Dr. Pedro Malavet writes, attacks by protestors were thwarted by officials but not before 28 died, including 16 Nationals, one National Guardsman, and seven police officers.

There is even belief that two men with Nationalist Party affiliations attempted to assassinate President Truman in 1950.

In 1952, Truman himself supported a referendum that would grant Commonwealth status to the island. It passed easily and for most Puerto Ricans, was seen as a measure of progress. But for the Nationals, it wasn’t good enough. They wanted to bring attention to their fight for true independence.

Tovar continues by writing that the Nationals chose the date of March 1, 1954 for their attack, the opening day of the InterAmerican Conference in Caracas, Venezuela. Leader Lolita Lebrón argued that rather than attempting to coordinate multiple shootings, the group’s best chance of success came with an attack on the U.S. House of Representatives.

A group of four–Rafael Cancel Miranda, Irving Flores, Andrés Figueroa Cordero, and Lebrón–travelled to Washington, D.C. by train to carry out the plot.

Lebrón led the group into the chamber and sat down in the visitors section. They recited the Lord’s Prayer before shouting “Viva Puerto Rico Libre!” (Long live free Puerto Rico!) and opening fire 15-30 times on the unsuspecting politicians.

The New York Times reported that Lebrón, fashioned in high heels and bright red lipstick, emptied her Luger pistol before attempting to unfurl a Puerto Rican flag, which she waved wildly in the air.

Doug Stanglin wrote in the USA Today that a congressman used a tie as a tourniquet and Pennsylvania Republican and Navy veteran James Van Zandt rushed upstairs and captured one of the shooters.

Paul Kanjorski, a 16-year old page at the time, explained that that he first thought the loud cracks were firecrackers, until being hit by a sandy substance when a marble column he was standing near was hit. He dropped to the floor and was one of several pages who helped carry out the injured. Kanjorski was a Pennsylvania representative until 2011. writes that three of the shooters were arrested at the scene with the fourth apprehended later.

A story in the Holland Sentinel archives from 2004 states that none of the 240 representatives present at the time were killed. Representatives Alvin M. Bentley from Michigan, Clifford Davis from Tennessee, Ben F. Jensen from Iowa, George Hyde Fallon from Maryland, and Kenneth Roberts from Alabama were injured, though all recovered. Majority Leader Charles Halleck of Indiana was narrowly missed, but hit with flying splinters.

The four were swiftly convicted of murder and conspiracy, each receiving 76 years in prison for their actions.

Cordero was granted release in 1978, a year before President Jimmy Carter controversially pardoned the other three. All four returned to Puerto Rico and never set foot on American soil again.




Idiot Savant?

Imagine you are attending the filming of a game show when suddenly you hear your name called by the PA announcer. You’re the next contestant! The host greets you and makes you laugh nervously with his charming wit before presenting you with the game. You have the choice of three doors. Behind each door is a prize that will become yours. On the other side of one of the doors is a new car. Behind the other two is a goat, as in the grass-munching farm animal. You’d prefer to drive home in the car.

The game seems straight forward at the beginning. You appear to have a one-third chance of selecting the car. You randomly select a door, just going with your gut. The host then surprises you by opening one of the other doors and revealing a goat. As game show hosts are wont to do, he complicates this decision-making process by allowing you the chance to switch your chosen door.

Should you do it?

This is the problem proposed to not only several contestants by Monty Hall, host of the 1970s game show “Let’s Make a Deal,” but also Parade Magazine columnist Marilyn vos Savant in a 1990 column.

Vos Savant, according to her official webpage, held the Guinness World Record for highest IQ for five years, for both adult and child scores. On a variety of IQ tests, she scored between 186 and 228. Though the methods of measuring intelligence are dubious across the board, and testing methods resulting in Savant’s scores have received special criticism even from herself, the fact remains that she has been widely considered very intelligent.

After her rise to fame, she began writing a column for Parade magazine in 1986 entitled “Ask Marilyn” in which fans would ask her to solve puzzles or answer difficult questions.

Fan Craig F. Whitaker of Columbia, Md., wrote the letter that sparked a very heated debate between Savant and many academic mathematicians.

So back to the original problem. Many people would respond to the problem by stating that they now have a 50 percent chance of being correct whether they stay or switch doors. Here is vos Savant’s reply:

“Yes; you should switch. The first door has a 1/3 chance of winning, but the second door has a 2/3 chance. Here’s a good way to visualize what happened. Suppose there are a million doors, and you pick door #1. Then the host, who knows what’s behind the doors and will always avoid the one with the prize, opens them all except door #777,777. You’d switch to that door pretty fast, wouldn’t you?”

Did you get it right?

This was less than convincing for 92 percent of the people who took time to reply to Savant’s answer, including 65 percent of the respondents who were identified as university academics. People were outraged by her assertion. Vos Savant’s website even posts some of the replies. This from Scott Smith, Ph.D., from the University of Florida:

“You blew it, and you blew it big! Since you seem to have difficulty grasping the basic principle at work here, I’ll explain. After the host reveals a goat, you now have a one-in-two chance of being correct. Whether you change your selection or not, the odds are the same. There is enough mathematical illiteracy in this country, and we don’t need the world’s highest IQ propagating more. Shame!”

Vos Savant, to her credit, took to her column to respond with confidence, explaining that at first selection, you have a 1 in 3 chance of selecting the correct door. Those odds do not increase simply because the host opened a door with a goat. When you make your choice, the odds are 2 in 3 that the car is behind a door you did not choose. The host is guaranteed to select a door behind which you will find a goat. The odds are 1 in 3 of your door being a winner, 0 in 3 behind the door the host chooses, and therefore 2 in 3 that the other door is correct.

This follow-up still was not enough to convince her readers. The responses took an increasingly acerbic tone.

“May I suggest that you obtain and refer to a standard textbook on probability before you try to answer a question of this type again?”

Charles Reid, Ph.D., University of Florida

“I am sure you will receive many letters on this topic from high school and college students. Perhaps you should keep a few addresses for help with future columns.”

-W. Robert Smith, Ph.D., Georgia State University

“You are utterly incorrect about the game show question, and I hope this controversy will call some public attention to the serious national crisis in mathematical education. If you can admit your error, you will have contributed constructively towards the solution of a deplorable situation. How many irate mathematicians are needed to get you to change your mind?”

-E. Ray Bobo, Ph.D., Georgetown University

“You are the goat!”

-Glenn Calkins, Western State College

And maybe most dismissively of all:

“Maybe women look at math problems differently than men.”

-Don Edwards, Sunriver, Ore.

Vos Savant implored her readers to test her answer by actually running trials of the game. The resulting tests finally led to her conclusion beginning to sink in, with junior high and high school math teachers writing in that her answer worked out. Mathematics professors worked with colleagues, coming around to Savant’s way of thinking, as well. Over the course of many trials, people reported winning approximately 33 percent of the time when they stayed and 66 percent chance when they switched.

Over time, and due to her Vos Savant’s persistence, sentiment toward her view began to shift. Zachary Crockett on writes that by the end of 1992, vos Savant reported that 56 percent of her general readership accepted her answer, while 71 percent of academics agreed with her.

There were holdouts, for sure, like the aforementioned Don Edwards of Sunriver, Ore., who just couldn’t accept the limits of the female brain, and re-wrote to Savant to express his disagreement:

“I still think you’re wrong. There is such a thing as female logic.”

And obviously there’s such a thing as male stubbornness, too.


The ballad of Bevo Francis

The last week of October brings with it not only my favorite holiday, but also the dawn of the season of my favorite sport: basketball.

This past week, the pros took to the hardwood to begin their long quest for championship glory. Storylines abound as LeBron James strives to bring a title to long-starved Cleveland sports fans and continues to build his case as one of the all-time great players. The 11th hour has struck on the career of legend Kobe Bryant, while players such as Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, and Steph Curry climb toward iconic status.

It’s amazing how fleeting that status can be, though. Sure, we will always remember Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, and Magic Johnson. But the greats of a bygone era–George Mikan, Bob Pettit, Dolph Schayes, Clyde Lovellette—slip from our collective memory. For one player in particular, even scoring 116 points in a college game and helping the game recover from a major black eye hasn’t been enough to permanently imprint his name into our minds—that being, Clarence “Bevo” Francis.

In 1951, college basketball was rocked by a point-shaving scandal. Top programs Long Island University, City College of New York, and Kentucky were implicated in the investigation. For LIU and CCNY, it was a blow from which the programs never recovered. For the common fan, it certainly left a bad taste. Fans want honest outcomes of games. Fairness is assumed and when that can no longer be the case, fans turn away.

Former coach and current CBS color analyst Bill Raftery, in his advanced praise for Shooting Star: The Bevo Francis Story, cited the slender 6’9” Ohioan sharpshooter with saving the game following the point-shaving scandal. Former Villanova coach Alex Severance compared Francis’ efforts to bring dignity back to the sport to Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig’s efforts after the infamous Black Sox scandal a generation earlier.

Mike Puma writes in a SportsCentury biography that Francis missed two full years of high school due to anemia. His basketball talent was apparent, so much so that his eligibility was called into question after his transfer from Irondale to Wellsville. Rumors flew that his parents had received a new home as an enticement. He sat out the season. And the next.

Finally, in his junior year, he laced up for the Wellsville varsity squad. Puma writes that he was given jersey number 32 by coach Newt Oliver, as that is how many points he expected his projected star to score. He came close, dropping in 30.6 points per game in 25 contests. But after all the suspensions and illness, Francis was 20 years old by the time he was a senior. And so he was deemed ineligible once again.

When Oliver took the coaching job at nearby Rio (pronounced RYE-oh) Grande College Redmen (now Red Storm), Francis followed. The tiny school had only 94 students and the gym was filled to capacity with fewer than 200 fans. But the team, and especially Francis, would make a name for itself.

On Jan. 9, 1953, against Ashland Junior College, Francis led his team to a 150-85 victory. He finished with a record 116 points. This, remember, without the aid of a three-point line. Playing center, he cleaned the boards but also possessed a feathery shooting stroke. Francis was the type of hybrid player often sought after in today’s game. He was Larry Bird, Dirk Nowitzki, or Kevin Durant before any of them were even born.

He would continue his dominance, averaging 50.1 points per game while leading his team to a 39-0 record. Large crowds gathered to watch him and Rio Grande began playing a majority of their games on the road to accommodate the interest and, of course, cash in. But with great success came great critics. Skeptics pointed out the inferior competition and his 116-point total was stricken from the record book because of the junior college status of the opponent.

So Coach Oliver scheduled 27 of the 28 games for the following season against NCAA competition. The tiny Ohio school beat Miami (Fla.), Providence, and Wake Forest. They took Villanova to overtime and played #8 NC State relatively close. All on the hot shooting of Bevo Francis.

On Groundhog Day 1954, much like the Bill Murray character in the movie of the same name, Francis would relive the past. Suiting up against Hillsdale College (Mich.), Francis dropped 113 points on the Chargers. Francis shot 38 of 70 from the field and 37 of 45 from the line. I was curious about his assist totals, but don’t believe that assists were tracked in 1954. Given Hillsdale’s NCAA status, the scoring record stood until 2012.

The Rio Grande squad went 21-7 that year and Francis averaged 46.5 points per game against NCAA-level competition. He nearly single-handedly saved the small, cash-strapped school from financial ruin. But Francis’ time in college came to a close in a fashion similar to his high school career. He was ruled ineligible again, this time for his poor attendance in classes. According to his New York Times obituary, he promptly left school and began touring with the Boston Whirlwinds, an all-white barnstorming team affiliated with the Harlem Globetrotters. Coach Oliver followed suit, taking over the helm of the Whirlwinds (The move certainly leads one to question Oliver’s motives).

Puma cites Francis as describing his time with the team: “We’d play two quarters and then be the clowns,” says Francis, who played two years with the Whirlwinds. “It was a dog’s life.”

He was drafted by the NBA’s Philadelphia Warriors (with whom he would have been paired with Wilt Chamberlain), but declined to play.

Francis eventually returned home to Ohio in 1962, where he worked in a steel mill until his retirement. He passed away earlier this summer at the age of 82.

As I consider the story of Bevo Francis, I can’t help but compare it to another Ohio basketball prodigy—the aforementioned LeBron James. Both Francis and James were marked for greatness early on, both possessed skills uncommon for their height, both were used by others for personal gain, and both were nagged by skeptics. But while James reached the top of basketball’s Mt. Olympus and returned to Ohio in 2014 as a hero, Francis returned and assumed a quiet life in a steel mill, to be mostly forgotten.