4 random thoughts

Seward’s Folly

I was thinking about Seward’s Folly the other day* – because who doesn’t think about Seward’s Folly every now and then – and I kept asking myself: how could anyone think this was a folly?

*I wonder – how many other people were also thinking about Seward’s Folly at that exact moment? There are 7.1 billion people on this planet. Surely one or two or ten of them were also thinking about it or studying it or learning about it in class.

Seward’s Folly, you probably know, refers to the United States’ acquisition of Alaska from the Russian Empire in 1867. At the time, Russia wanted to sell its Alaskan territory, fearing that it might be seized if war broke out with Britain. US Secretary of State William Seward negotiated the deal and purchased the land for $7.2 million (a bargain price of two cents an acre). The area was then organized as the Department of Alaska, then renamed the Alaska territory, and finally became the state of Alaska upon being admitted to the Union in 1959.

Seward was heavily criticized for the purchase. The press called the newly acquired wasteland “Seward’s Icebox” and the “polar bear garden.”* The New York Tribune wrote: “Ninety-nine hundredths of Russian America are absolutely useless. To Russia it was an encumbrance, to us it would be an embarrassment.”And, in what is now my favorite metaphor of all time, The New York World wrote: “Russia has sold us a sucked orange.”

*I know the critics were trying to be offensive, but maybe they could have come up with something better. Who wouldn’t want to live in a polar bear garden? Polar bears are great.

Most of the country also viewed the purchase unfavorably, thinking that sure, the land is cool, but what are we gonna do with it?

Even Congress was annoyed. They had been reluctant to purchase Alaska in the first place, and they viewed it as an arbitrary act rather than something that could bolster a country fresh out of the Civil War.

Russians weren’t happy about it either – they wrote that it was nothing but a “mean, disgusting joke upon the Russian society.”

Here’s the thing though – the purchase of Alaska turned out to be a great decision, right? There was the great Alaska Gold Rush in 1899. There are vast energy resources. There’s the Iditarod. It’s a popular vacation spot. And yet, it’s been 148 years, and we still refer to the purchase as a folly.

I guess I have something that Seward’s contemporaries didn’t have. Hindsight. We look at Alaska now, and we think of this majestic land, of rolling hills and crisp winters and so much space – 586,412 square miles. But in 1867, Alaska was a great unknown. Most of it couldn’t be colonized. In a country overcome with debt and political strife, many looked at the purchase and thought, What’s the point?

I just think it’s time to give old William Seward a break.

It is 2015 and all of these things are true:

Dr. Seuss is coming out with a new book.

Torii Hunter is on the Minnesota Twins.

Will Ferrell, Eddie Murphy, Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, and Bill Murray made appearances on SNL.

Bob Dylan is releasing a new album.

Harper Lee is publishing her second novel.

Kevin Garnett is on the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Gas is under $2 a gallon.

The US Presidents

Wait But Why, one of my favorite websites, wrote a post about the US Presidents. It goes into ridiculous detail about each President – from Washington to McKinley – and, wow, some of the nuggets in there are just great. Here are some of my favorites:

The 43 years between 1861 and 1913 saw 9 presidents, 8 of whom had mustaches. And never before or after this era did any other president have a mustache.

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson formed a decades-long pen pal relationship after their times in office, and both died the same day, on July 4, 1826 – the country’s 50th anniversary. James Monroe, the fifth President, also died on July 4th.

Late in his life, James Madison became obsessed with his legacy and paranoid to the point of altering letters he had written or others had written him.

John Quincy Adams had a pet alligator who lived in the White House bathtub.

Andrew Jackson cursed like a sailor, and as a result, so did his pet parrot. This caused a lot of problems, including the parrot having to be removed from Jackson’s funeral ceremony for cursing so much during the proceedings.

Martin Van Buren’s hometown was Kinderhook, NY, and one of his campaign slogans was “Vote for Old Kinderhook,” or “Vote for OK.” The term OK caught on and it’s theorized that this could be the origin of the word “okay.”

John Tyler, who was President from 1841-1845, has two living grandchildren.

Zachary Taylor died suddenly after eating some raw fruit, about a year into his presidency. Historians have speculated that he may have been poisoned, but there’s no conclusive evidence either way.

James Buchanan was a terrible person (and a lifelong bachelor). His cabinet was the most corrupt in history, he vetoed a bill to create more colleges, saying that “there are already too many educated people,” he ran the deficit up to $17 million and presided over the Panic of 1857, he recklessly ousted Brigham Young as governor of the Utah Territory after hearing uncorroborated reports of a Mormon rebellion, he vetoed the Morrill Act and Homestead Act, both of which proved to be important acts after Lincoln later signed them into law.

Legend has it that an 11-year-old girl wrote to Abrham Lincoln during his presidential campaign and told him his weird skinny face should have a beard to be less weird and skinny, and he took the advice.

Andrew Johnson, at his and Lincoln’s 1864 inauguration, showed up at the event hammered and proceeded to make a complete debacle of a long, rambling, drunken speech as Lincoln and the entire Senate Chamber looked on in shock. A Senator who attended said afterwards, “I was never so mortified in my life—had I been able to find a hole I would have dropped through it out of sight.” Johnson then disappeared into reclusion for six weeks to avoid public ridicule.

Ulysses Grant’s real name is Hiram Ulysses Grant. But when he was first nominated to attend West Point, the guy who nominated him messed up and put his name in as Ulysses Simpson Grant. When Grant protested, he was told it was too much of a hassle to go back and change it now, so he just had to go live the rest of his life as Ulysses S. Grant.

A young Rutherford B. Hayes has an uncanny resemblance to Drew Brees.

You can listen to the first minute of Grover Cleveland’s 1892 campaign speech.

Robert Todd Lincoln, son of Abraham Lincoln, witnessed, in person, the assassinations of his father, James Garfield, and William McKinley. Lincoln felt super guilty about this and refused to ever attend a public function with a president again.

The Imposter

The other day I watched a documentary called The Imposter, and the story is just so insane that I have to share it.

In 1994, a 13 year old boy from Texas named Nicholas Barclay was kidnapped. Three years later, he was found in Spain and returned home to his family.

The family was obviously overwhelmingly happy that their son was found, and it became a national news story. He moved back in, went back to school, and tried to resume his life as normally as he could.

Except – it was all fake. The real Nicholas Barclay was never found. A 23-year old imposter named Frédéric Bourdin pretended to be Nicholas – he dyed his hair blonde and got the same tattoos as Nicholas and was able to convince the family that it was really him. He was able to do this even though he had different eye colors and a French accent. He told the family that he had been abused and tortured, and was not allowed to speak in English while kidnapped. And they believed it.

It wasn’t until a private investigator grew suspicious while working on a documentary of the family that anyone suspected foul play. The investigator compared a photo of Bourdin’s ears to Nicholas’s ears, and he discovered that they did not match. In 1998, the FBI obtained a court order to take fingerprints and a DNA sample. Bourdin went to prison for six years, and the family was left without their son.

It turned out that Bourdin was a serial imposter who had assumed over 500 false identities.

Many have called out the family for falling for something so obvious. I mean, how can you possibly believe that someone else is your son? Others have speculated that the family knew it wasn’t Nicholas and they had in fact murdered him years earlier. When someone else turned up as Nicholas, they pretended it was him to avoid suspicion. A homicide case was actually opened, but there wasn’t enough evidence to proceed further.

Anyway, it’s an absolutely crazy – and, honestly, pretty depressing – story that has never been solved.

And I don’t want to end this post on a sad note, so here is a video of pandas playing on a slide.


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