William Randolph Hearst, Citizen Kane, the Assassination of William McKinley, and Donald Trump

Let’s talk about William Randolph Hearst.

Hearst, you may know, was an American newspaper magnate in the early twentieth century. He owned just about all of the largest in papers in every major American city. He also expanded to magazines and created the largest newspaper and magazine business in the world.

Hearst became so wealthy that he built a frikkin’ castle on top of a mountain. Hearst Castle is now a major tourist destination – we made it a point to stop there on a family vacation in 2001. It’s big and bold and breathtaking, sitting high above the California landscape. It has some of the finest pieces of art in the world. There are like 150 pools. What they don’t tell you on the tour is that Hearst was a thin-skinned lunatic.

Wealth wasn’t enough for ol’ William. He sought power. He controlled the editorial positions and coverage of political news in all of his papers, thereby exercising enormous political influence. Problem was, Hearst routinely invented sensational stories, faked interviews, ran phony pictures, and distorted real events. Consider this anecdote:

“We had a crime story that was going to be featured in a 96-point headline on page one,” remembers Vern Whaley, an editor for Hearst’s Herald-Examiner. “When I found the address that was in the story, that address was a vacant lot. So I hollered over at the rewrite desk, I said, ‘You got the wrong address in this story. This is a vacant lot.’ The copy chief that night was a guy named Vic Barnes. And he says, ‘Sit down, Vern.’ He says, ‘The whole story’s a fake.'”

Hearst basically invented yellow journalism, and he used it to get what he wanted.

In 1898, he called for war against Spain. Public support grew. And, uh, then we went to war against Spain.

After World War I, he called for an isolationist foreign policy. Public support grew. And, uh, we became an isolationist nation, despite the atrocities developing abroad.

He used his influence to win elections, twice winning a seat to the House of Representatives as a Democrat.

There was no one to check Hearst. No internet, no 24 hours news cycle, no Daily Show, no John Oliver. Hearst owned the largest papers, controlled what they said, and so he avoided criticism in the press. He was untouchable. William Randolph Hearst could get away with anything.

Let’s talk about Citizen Kane.

Citizen Kane, you may know, was released in 1941 and is considered one of the greatest movies of all time. Maybe the greatest. It’s a masterpiece of storytelling and cinematography, a miracle for its time. Here’s Roger Ebert:

Its surface is as much fun as any movie ever made. Its depths surpass understanding. I have analyzed it a shot at a time with more than 30 groups, and together we have seen, I believe, pretty much everything that is there on the screen. The more clearly I can see its physical manifestation, the more I am stirred by its mystery.

What you may not know is that Citizen Kane was loosely based on Hearst’s life. Orson Welles never confirmed this, but, I mean, come on. It’s not that hard to connect the dots. Charles Foster Kane builds a newspaper empire, obtains massive amounts of wealth, builds a castle atop a mountain, and then begins a ruthless pursuit of power, ultimately ending in tragedy and death.

Remember the part where I said that Hearst was a thin-skinned lunatic? Right. So, yeah, he wasn’t really a fan of Citizen Kane. Not surpisingly, he didn’t like the idea of the film painting a very unflattering portrait of him.

And remember the part where I said that Hearst always got what he wanted? Right. So, yeah, he used his influence and resources to attempt to prevent the film from being released.* Welles and his studio resisted the pressure, but Hearst was ultimately successful in pressuring theater chains to limit showings of the movie.

*As it turns out, Hearst never watched the film.

The resulting box office numbers were mediocre. It was only later that the movie was appreciated and watched by the masses.

Let’s talk about William McKinley.

McKinley was our 25th President, serving from 1897-1901. He has the same expression in every single picture.

McKinley was also one of four Presidents to be assassinated, along with Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and John F. Kennedy.

Why is it that we know so much about the assassinations of Lincoln and Kennedy, but nothing about McKinley?* I mean, sure, he didn’t free the slaves or speak in a funny New England accent, but he was the President. And a good one! I think I speak for all of us when I applaud the Dingley Act of 1897, which led to rapid economic growth and a brighter future for all Americans. He won his re-election by a landslide and had the good foresight to pick Teddy Roosevelt as his Vice President.

*Or Garfield, but we can talk about him another time.

McKinley was an important man. A good man. We should know more about his assassination.

Thankfully, I have this blog. So, here’s what happened: On September 6, 1901, McKinley was visiting Buffalo, New York, for an event called the Pan-American Exposition. Things were a little more lax in 1901, and McKinley was out and about shaking hands with the public* when he was shot by an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz. Perhaps the main reason we don’t talk about the assassination is because Czolgosz is an impossible name to say.

*McKinley enjoyed meeting with the public and was reluctant to accept security (lol). In fact, the President’s Secretary feared an assassination attempt would take place on this trip FOR THIS VERY REASON and twice took it off the schedule (lol). McKinley restored it each time (lol). Really, McKinley’s assassination is a result of an ‘ehhh it’ll be fine’ attitude.

Anyway, this guy Czolgosz had lost his job during the Panic of 1893 and turned to anarchism. He viewed McKinley as a symbol of oppression. So he decided to kill him. He attended the event in Buffalo, went to shake the President’s hand, and shot him twice. One bullet grazed McKinley, and the other entered his abdomen and was never found.

Here’s a drawing of the incident:


Thirteen days later, McKinley died from gangrene caused by the bullet wounds.

The next morning, Teddy Roosevelt took over, became wildly popular, and had his head etched into Mt. Rushmore. We forgot all about poor old Willie McKinley.

It was right around the turn of the twentieth century that William Hearst began dabbling in politics. Hearst was a Democrat. The sitting President, William McKinley, was a Republican. This was a problem for Hearst.

So, Hearst asked the best writers he could find to smear McKinley and bring him down. The gaudier, the better. In February 1900, a guy named Ambrose Bierce wrote a column and closed with a reference to the assassination a few days earlier of the Kentucky governor, William Goebel.

The bullet that pierced Goebel’s breast
Can not be found in all the West.
Good reason: it is speeding here [to Washington]
To stretch McKinley on his bier.

In early 1901, an unsigned column (widely attributed to Hearst editor Arthur Brisbane) called McKinley a ‘bad man’ and declared:

If bad institutions and bad men can be got rid of only by killing, then the killing must be done.

The killing must be done. Six months later, McKinley was assassinated.

There’s no doubt – this is all very curious. Hearst was a massively influential man, he always got what he wanted, he printed an op-ed that called for the killing of the President, and then the President was killed.

But … no. I’m not accusing William Hearst of conspiring with Czolgosz (or others) to have McKinley killed. That’s not where I’m going with this, especially because I don’t want Hearst’s family to sue me for slander (even though that would be great fun and hilariously ironic).

Here’s where I’m going with this:

Words matter.

We live in a country where we can say and write what we want. It’s a great thing. But our words are not without consequence.

Was Czolgosz inspired by Hearst? Maybe, maybe not. But his newspapers certainly influenced the general public’s perception of McKinley. And perception can grow like a snowball, inciting anger and fear and a general sense of anxiety that is not always based in facts.

And all it takes is one person – a Czolgosz, a John Wilkes-Booth, a Lee Harvey Oswald – to turn that anger into something much worse.

And that brings me to Mr. T.

He said this two weeks ago:

Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish the Second Amendment. By the way, if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do folks. Though the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.

Can … can you just not say that?

Yes, he backtracked, he said he never meant to imply that people should, like, get out their guns and kill Hillary Clinton. But there are crazy people who will hear those words and legitimately think about doing that.

Hearst and Trump have a lot in common.

A desire to be in politics

And Trump, like Hearst, speaks to a massive audience. But please, use some discretion. Watch your language. THE CHILDREN ARE WATCHING. And please don’t incite violence, because that never ends well.

One other thing.

September 5th, Labor Day, is the 75th anniversary of Citizen Kane’s release in the US.

And the day after that, September 6th, will be the 115-year anniversary of McKinley’s assassination.

The two events are hastily connected. Citizen Kane is loosely based off a guy who may or may not have inspired McKinley’s assassination.

But on those two days, let’s have a moment of silence. Not for remembrance. Not for recognition. But because sometimes it’s good to stay quiet.


The man who saved the world


This is a story about perhaps the most overlooked guy in the history of the world, a guy who prevented millions of deaths, a guy who prevented a third World War, a guy who prevented perhaps the worst catastrophe of our time. All because of one decision.

His name is Stanislav Petrov.

This is a story about the 1983 Soviet nuclear bomb incident.


On September 25, 1983, Stanislav Petrov was sitting at the Soviet command center for the Oko nuclear early-warning system, a top secret command station in the dense forests south of Moscow. The system was designed to alert the Soviet military if a missile had been launched from the United States. Petrov’s responsibilities included observing the satellite early warning network and notifying his superiors of any impending nuclear attack against the Soviet Union.

So, yeah, he was an important guy. If Petrov alerted his superiors of an attack, the Soviet Union’s strategy was to launch an immediate nuclear counter-attack against the United States.

Shortly after midnight, the alarm went off .

The bunker’s computers reported that the United Stated had launched an intercontinental ballistic missile toward the Soviet Union. Petrov, amazingly, didn’t panic, and decided that it must be a computer error, since a first-strike nuclear attack by the US was likely to involve hundreds of simultaneous missiles in order to disable any Soviet means of a counterattack. Petrov did not alert his superiors, then went back to hangin’ out in the Oko bunker.

Then, the computers identified four additional missiles. A loud klaxon horn began wailing.

Before we continue with the story – it’s important to note that Soviet generals were all generally paranoid and crazy and prone to act, even with insufficient evidence. Just three weeks before, the Soviets had shot down a Korean jet liner with 269 passengers on board, including a US Congressman and 60 other Americans, because they suspected it was a spy plane (it wasn’t). This pushed East-West tensions to their highest point since the Cuban Missile Crisis. It prompted Ronald Reagan to call the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” Fun times.

And now back to the story. Petrov suspected it was still a computer error, so he asked his colleagues for visual confirmation. But it was late at night, and the atmosphere was cloudy, and the missiles were still beyond the horizon, and hilariously, his colleagues were drunk (“it can wait till tomorrow morning,” one of them said). They couldn’t confirm the attack.

Let me ask you, have you ever had to make a really big decision in a short amount of time? It’s the most stressful thing, ever. Like, ordering at a restaurant when the waiter is staring at you. Or deciding if you need to get off this exit, or maybe it’s the next one. Or choosing what shirt to buy at a store. Sometimes I am utterly incapable of making a decision, but I make one anyway, and I talk to my gut, and I hope it turns out OK.

But your gut is not a good way to make a decision when nuclear war is at stake. So with insufficient evidence, and a loud horn blaring in his ear, and a computer saying OMG THERE ARE FIVE NUCLEAR MISSILES HEADING OUR WAY, Petrov had to do one of the following:

DECISION 1: Alert your superiors and begin to launch a counter-strike. (Pros: you defend the homeland, prevent thousands of your people from dying. Cons: If it’s a false alarm, you’ve started World War III.)

DECISION 2: Do nothing and hope it’s a false alarm. (Pros: You’ve prevented a nuclear attack on the US and saved countless American lives. Cons: If you’re wrong, you’ve neglected to alert your superiors of a nuclear attack, which, um, will not go over well.)

One other thing – if in doubt, soldiers in Oko were trained to rely on the computer rather than their own instincts. And not only was the computer monitor flashing the warning signal, but it insisted that the strikes were confirmed at the highest level.

Petrov went with his instinct and did nothing.

And then, with sweaty palms, he waited.

As you probably remember, the United States did not start World War III in 1983. Petrov was right. It was indeed a false alarm, caused by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds had confused the satellites feeding the computer information.

His colleagues gathered round to celebrate the best decision any human has ever made. And then – I swear this is true – Petrov drank half a litre of vodka, slept for 28 hours, and went back to work, where his grateful comrades bought him a Russian-made portable TV as a reward.

There is no guarantee that a different decision would have led to nuclear war. Stanislav himself couldn’t have ordered a counter-attack, it was up to his superiors based on information he provided. But Stanislav (who is still alive!) says that the Soviet army did not have a culture that encouraged differences of opinion (this is not suprising). If he had confirmed the attack, nobody was going to contradict him. “All our military forces would be brought into combat readiness, with more than 11,000 missiles… complete overkill,” he says. “Nobody will correct me, they will all agree with me. It’s easy to agree, but I will be the only one responsible.”

This story was top secret until 1998. Petrov’s wife didn’t even know about it.

“All that happened didn’t matter to me. It was my job. I was simply doing my job, and I was the right person at the right time, that’s all. My late wife for 10 years knew nothing about it. ‘So what did you do?’ she asked me. ‘Nothing. I did nothing.'”

My favorite unsolved mystery


A few weeks ago I started listening to the podcast Mystery Show. I don’t normally listen to podcasts – I listened to Serial last year, and that’s it – but I saw a tweet about it, and I was about to get on a seven hour plane ride, so I gave it a try.

Mystery Show is hosted by the excellent Starlee Kine, whose work has been featured on This American Life and other public radio affiliates. The premise of the show: talk to friends, find an unsolved mystery from their lives, and solve it. We all have at least one unsolved mystery floating around.*

*Mine: Whatever happened to Mr. Kaiser, one of my fourth grade teachers who left one day and never came back?

The one, and only, caveat: the mystery can’t be solved by using the internet. And so you get episodes like these:

Episode 1: 10 years ago, Laura became a member at a video store, rented a video, and attempted to return said video the next day, only to discover the store was completely gone. Where did the store go?

Episode 2: Andrea is a writer who no one reads. Then one day she sees a picture of Britney Spears holding her book. How did Britney get a copy of my book?

Episode 3: A young boy finds a belt buckle on the side of the street. Whose belt buckle is this?

Episode 4: Starlee and her friend get stopped at a red light. The license plate next to them says ‘I love 9 11.’ What type of person has a license plate that says I love 9 11?

Episode 5: How tall is Jake Gyllenhaal? No one agrees.

Episode 6: Jonathan has lunch in a cafeteria, where he notices a Welcome Back, Kotter lunch box with a scene he does not remember from the show.

I was thoroughly fascinated with every episode. I highly recommend giving Mystery Show a listen.


But that’s not what I’m here to tell you about. I’m here to talk about my favorite unsolved mystery, the mystery of DB Cooper. Maybe you’ve heard this story, maybe you haven’t, but I find myself thinking about this every few weeks because it’s one of the craziest things that’s ever happened on Planet Earth.

On November 21, 1971, an unidentified man hijacked a Boeing 727 aircraft in the airspace between Portland and Seattle. He demanded $200,000 and a parachute. His demands were met, he jumped out of the plane with the parachute, and no one knows what happened to him, despite an extensive manhunt and FBI investigation. It remains the only unsolved air piracy case in American aviation history.

Got it? Good. Let us travel down the rabbit hole…


This all started on Thanksgiving Eve, when a man carrying a black case purchased a one-way ticket at Portland International Airport. He identified himself as Dan Cooper. He wore a black lightweight raincoat, loafers, a dark suit, a neatly pressed white collared shirt, and a black necktie. He boarded the plane, lit a cigarette, and ordered a bourbon and soda. A classic 1971 move.

Shortly after takeoff, Cooper passed a note to one of the flight attendants. She assumed the note contained a lonely businessman’s phone number, so she dropped it unopened into her purse. Cooper leaned toward her and quietly said, “Miss, you’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.”

Startled, the attendant opened the note. It read:

I have a bomb in my briefcase. I will use it if necessary. I want you to sit next to me. You are being hijacked.

The attendant did as requested, then asked to see the bomb. Cooper cracked open his briefcase long enough for her to glimpse eight red cylinders attached to wires coated with red insulation, and a large cylindrical battery. After closing the briefcase, Cooper dictated his demands:

$200,000 in American currency, four parachutes, and a fuel truck standing by in Seattle to refuel the aircraft upon arrival.

The attendant conveyed Cooper’s instructions to the cockpit. When she returned, Cooper was wearing dark sunglasses.

After receiving word of the situation, the pilot contacted Seattle-Tacoma Airport traffic control, which then informed local and federal authorities. The other passengers were informed that their arrival in Seattle would be delayed because of a “minor mechanical difficulty.”

On the ground, the airline’s president authorized the $200,000 payment and ordered all employees to cooperate fully with Cooper. The aircraft circled Seattle for two hours so that the police and FBI had time to assemble the parachutes and ransom money. The FBI also took a microfilm photograph of each of the 10,000 20-dollar bills.

Meanwhile, Cooper spoke calmly and ordered a second bourbon and soda. He paid for the drink and insisted the attendant keep the change.

Cooper was informed that his demands had been met. The plane landed fifteen minutes later. Cooper instructed the captain to taxi the jet to an isolated, brightly lit section of the tarmac and extinguish lights in the cabin to deter police snipers. One of the airline’s operation managers then delivered the cash-filled knapsack and parachutes. Once the delivery was completed, Cooper permitted all passengers and flight attendants to leave the plane.

While the plane was being refueled, Cooper outlined his flight plan to the cockpit crew: a southeast course toward Mexico City at the minimum airspeed possible without stalling the aircraft – about 120mph at a maximum altitude of 10,000 feet. He further specified that the landing gear remain deployed in the takeoff/landing position, the wing flaps be lowered 15 degrees, and the cabin remain unpressurized.

Back in the air they went. 10,000 feet, 120 mph. Cooper tied the parachute around his waist, opened the plane’s aft door, and jumped, knapsack in hand. No one knows what happened to him.


The FBI got to work right away. They were able to recover 66 unidentified latent fingerprints aboard the aircraft, along with Cooper’s black necktie. They interviewed eyewitnesses in Portland and Seattle and all those who had personally interacted with Cooper. A series of composite sketches was developed.

Local police and FBI agents began to question possible suspects. One of them was a man named DB Cooper, contacted by Portland police on the off-chance that the hijacker had used his real name. His involvement was quickly ruled out, but an inexperienced wire service reporter confused the eliminated suspect’s name with the pseudonym used by the hijacker. The mistake was picked up and repeated by other media sources, and that’s where we get the name DB Cooper.

The FBI attempted a ground-level search in the suspected area where Cooper could have landed, but there were too many variables – wind speed, how long he remained in free fall before pulling his rip cord, and whether he in fact survived the jump at all. They tried to re-create the jump using the same aircraft in the same flight configuration, by pushing a 200-point sled out of the open airstair. This led search teams to a landing zone near Mount St. Helens. Agents and deputies went door-to-door, patrol boats ran across the surrounding lakes, but no trace of Cooper was found.

It was the most extensive search operation in US history.


In early 1972, the US Attorney General released the serial numbers of the ransom money to the general public. A year later, with the ransom money still missing, The Oregon Journal republished the serial numbers and offered $1,000 to the first person to turn in a ransom bill to the newspaper or any FBI field office. No matches were found


In 1980, an eight year old boy was vacationing with his family on the Columbia River, about nine miles downstream from Vancouver, Washington. The boy uncovered three packets of the ransom cash, significantly disintegrated but still bundled in rubber bands. FBI agents confirmed that the money was indeed a portion of the ransom.

The discovery ultimately raised more questions than it answered. There were ten bills missing from one packet. There was no logical reason why the three packets would have remained together after separating from the rest of the money. Some believe that the money had been buried by a wild animal. Some thought that Cooper, knowing he could never spend the money, buried it there. No one knows. To date, none of the 9,710 remaining bills has turned up anywhere in the world.


Since 1971, the FBI has processed over a thousand “serious suspects,” but they have almost all been ruled out. The agency maintains an active case file, which has grown to more than 60 volumes, and continues to solicit creative ideas from the public. “Maybe a hydrologist can use the latest technology to trace the ransom money found in 1980 to where Cooper landed upstream,” suggested Special Agent Larry Carr, leader of the investigation team since 2006. “Or maybe someone just remembers that odd uncle.”


*Sources: Mostly Wikipedia and my own innate psychosis

Same as it ever was


We have very serious problems in the world. When I turn on the news (especially the goddamn local news) or log onto the world wide web, I tend to be greeted with messages like the one above. Everything is awful. Everything will continue to be awful. Stay tuned for Jeopardy, up next.

You know what, guys, we’ve always had very serious problems in the world. We’ve solved some of them, we’ve created some new one’s, but by and large the problems we’re dealing with are a variation of the same problems we’ve faced before. Politics. War. Disease. Sports. Young people. As David Byrne said, it’s the same as it ever was.

Or, as I’ve written before, everything is a remix.

Now, I don’t mean to delegitimize the world’s problems. They certainly exist, big and small, and complaining can be fun. In a weird way it brings people together. Humans like to complain, and we’ve always liked to complain. But most of the inane crap we’re complaining about is not unique to our time.

Let’s take a look at some examples of stuff people have been saying for the last 100+ years:

On the American dream…

U.S. consumers seem suddenly disillusioned with the American dream of rising propserity. “I’m worried if my kids can earn a decent living and buy a house,” says Tony Lentini, vice president of Mitchell Energy in Houston. “I wonder if this will be the first generation that didn’t do better than their parents. There’s a genuine feeling that the country has gotten way off track, and neither political party has any answers. Americans don’t see any solutions.” Time Magazine, 1992

The percentage of Americans living in poverty is lower, crime rates have halved, and GDP has doubled since 1992.

On baseball…

As baseball is no longer a sport, but a business, and a rather low business at that, it must he treated like the stove business and the express business whenever it obstructs the sidewalks or interferes with the clear right of way of pedestrians. — New York Times, 1891

Baseball revenues have compounded at annual rate of (approximtaely) eight shmagillion percent since 1891.

On stock buybacks…

Fortunately, when investors start getting antsy — as many have in the wake of the Dow’s latest, weeklong skid — Corporate America has a potent tranquilizer in its remedial arsenal: the stock buyback. The traditional stock buyback — under which a company repurchases its own shares from investors — is so commonplace in the age of the steady-as-she-goes bull market as to be a cliche. — CNN, 1998

The stock market has doubled since 1998.

On the general pace of life…

It is, unfortunately, one of the chief characteristics of modern business to be always in a hurry. In olden times it was different— The Medical Record, 1884

I long for the pace of life before indoor plumbing and antibiotics.

On conversation…

Conversation is said to be a lost art. Good talk presupposes leisure, both for preparation and enjoyment. The age of leisure is dead, and the art of conversation is dying— Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, Volume 29, 1890

We talk a lot about about millenials of the 21st century, but rarely do we talk about those scallywag 20th century millenials.

On American companies manufacturing abroad…

Goods will be so much cheaper, but what will become of all the American Industries?Judge Magazine, 1888

American industries did just fine after 1888.

Take a look at this 1964 political ad put out by Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats. It looks like it could have been made in 2016.* The part from 3:07 on is especially prescient…

*except for the smoking part.

By the way, the dude from this ad is still alive and spoke with CNN last week.

Here is some other stuff people have said forever:

On marriage…

The rock upon which most of the flower-bedecked marriage barges go to pieces is the latter-day cult of individualism; the worship of the brazen calf of the Self. The Atlantic, 1907

On narcissism…

This was the cover of New York Magazine in August 1976:


On twenty-somethings…

They have trouble making decisions. They would rather hike in the Himalayas than climb a corporate ladder. They crave entertainment, but their attention span is as short as one zap of a TV dial. They postpone marriage because they dread divorce. Time, 1990


Year after year,
Running over the same old ground.
What have we found?
The same old fears.

James K. Polk was a good President

Most people think of James Knox Polk as one of those old, random Presidents from the 1800s. And while he certainly didn’t have the long-lasting legacy of a Lincoln or Roosevelt or Kennedy, he is, I would argue, the most underrated President. I’ve always had a deep respect for him. I know more about him than any reasonable person should. I’d like to spend a few moments discussing his Presidency, because it really did shape the America we know today.

Polk began his campaign for President by announcing that he would only seek one term. He then laid out a very clear, rational agenda with three main goals. Number one: acquire land from Mexico and Britain. Number two: re-establish an independent Treasury. Number three: Reduce tariffs.

He went on to accomplish his full agenda and didn’t run again, because James K. Polk was a cool and decent man.

Let’s talk about land. At the time of Polk’s election (1845), the possibility that the US could become a huge, coastal nation was still uncertain. The Oregon Territory was under the joint occupation and control of the United Kingdom and the United States. Mexico owned much of the Southwest. Texas  was still an independent sovereign country. But in Polk’s four years, the US acquired half of Mexico for a fee of $15 million*. He worked out a compromise with the Brits to acquire the whole of the Oregon Territory. And the US annexed Texas.

*They also had to win the Mexican-American War. 

Look at this map below. You see that blue Texas region? That’s Polk. You see that pink Southwest region? Polk. You see the yellow Northwest region? Also Polk! Suddenly, the US had all of the land. Manifest Destiny was complete.


I suppose you could also look at this map and conclude that Polk was a brutal imperialist invader, but let’s not think about that.

OK, now let’s talk about the Treasury, because who doesn’t want to read about US fiscal policy in the mid-nineteenth century?

In 1846, Polk approved a law restoring the Independent Treasury System, under which government funds were held in the Treasury and not in banks or other financial institutions. Martin Van Buren had signed  this into law in 1840, but it was quickly repealed by the Whig-dominated Congress. Curse those Whigs!  Polk’s system entrusted the federal government to exclusively manage government funds and required that disbursements be made in hard specie, such as gold or silver, or in paper backed by gold and silver. The goal here was to avoid undue speculation in western lands as the nation expanded its territory. This was indisputably a success.

Let’s now talk about Polk’s third agenda item – reducing tariffs. A few years before Polk’s election, the Whigs* enacted the famous Black Tariff, an increased tariff that led to a sharp decline in international trade. In 1843, imports into the United States nearly halved from their 1842 levels. Exports, which are affected by overall trade patterns, dropped by approximately 20%.

*Those darn Whigs, up to their old tricks again!

Polk wouldn’t stand for that. And so he worked with his Secretary of the Treasury, Robert Walker, to reduce the tariff rates. In delivering the proposal to Congress, Polk and Walker both successfully predicted that a reduction in tariff rates would stimulate trade, including imports. The result would be a net increase in customs revenue despite the reduced rates.

They were absolutely right. The Walker Tarriff was adopted in 1845, and trade increased substantially. Net revenue collected also increased, from $30 million annually under the Black Tariff to almost $45 million annually by 1850. It also improved relations with Britain that had soured over the Oregon boundary dispute. Excellent work, guys!

Manifest Destiny? Check! Independent Treasury? Check!! Lower tariffs and stimulated trade? Check!!! Polk went three-for-three, then bowed out gracefully. How cool is that?

Now, I must admit that Polk was not a perfect President. He was a slaveholder for his entire life, and he did not support emancipation. And that’s, eh, well, let’s not talk about that.

He also went on a bit of a power trip. After acquiring the Oregon territory and Texas and much of the southwest, Polk just kinda went for it and tried to purchase Cuba. He authorized his ambassador to Spain, Romulus Mitchell Saunders, to negotiate the purchase and offer Spain up to $100 million (an astounding sum at the time). Cuba was close to the United States and had slavery, so the idea was appealing to Southerners. However, Spain was still making huge profits in Cuba (notably in sugar, molasses, rum, and tobacco), and so the Spanish government rejected the offer.

But imagine if they had accepted? Cuba would be a state!

Polk’s final years took a toll on his health, and he died of cholera three months after leaving office. People have this weird obsession with the last words of a President’s life, and I’d like to take a moment to reflect on Polk’s last words, because they are really a thing of beauty.

Some last words, by the way, are really interesting. John Adams said, “Thomas Jefferson survives!” even though Jefferson had actually passed away several hours earlier.

Most are really depressing:

Ulysses Grant: “Water”

Chester A. Arthur: “Life is not worth living.”

Benjamin Harrison:  “Are the doctors here? Doctor, my lungs…” Harrison died of pneumonia.

Richard Nixon: “Help.”

Polk’s was the best:

“I love you, Sarah. For all eternity, I love you.”

Dawwwww. Sarah was his wife. Good on you, James Polk. I bet the other Presidents are jealous.

Here are some other random facts about James K. Polk:

  • Polk was elected at 49 years of age, and at the time he was the youngest President in American history.
  • He was President during the gold rush in California.
  • He is the only US President to have also served as Speaker of the House.
  • Scholars have called Polk the “least known consequential president” of the United States.
  • He was one of three Presidents who had no children.
  • He was a great orator, earning him the nickname “Napoleon of the Stump.”
  • He had the shortest retirement of all Presidents at 103 days.
  • Along with George Washington, Andrew Johnson, Chester A. Arthur, Calvin Coolidge and Lyndon B. Johnson, he is one of six Presidents to have died while his direct successor was in office.

Polk’s legacy takes many forms, most notably in the form of Oh yeah, I’ve heard of that guy, I wonder what the K stands for. But he really did leave an extraordinary legacy. A third of this country’s land was acquired in his four years.

Take another moment to look at that map.


“To look at that map,” said the historian Robert Merry, “and to take in the western and southwestern expanse included in it, is to see the magnitude of Polk’s presidential accomplishments.”

Sources for this include this Wait But Why post, this random page I found on the Internet, and, of course, our good friends at Wikipedia.

The Great Molasses Flood

Last week – January 15th – was the 96th anniversary of The Great Molasses Flood. Maybe you’ve heard about this, maybe you haven’t, but either way it is one of Boston’s most bizarre disasters. A large molasses storage tank burst, and a massive wave of molasses rushed through the streets at 35 miles per hour.

Let me repeat that – a MASSIVE WAVE OF MOLASSES rushed through the streets at 35 MILES PER HOUR.

It was a tragedy. Buildings were ripped off their foundations. A truck was hurled into the Boston Harbor. 21 people died. 150 were injured.

Here’s how it happened – a chemical firm called the Purity Distilling Company specialized in producing ethanol and rum through the distillation of molasses. Molasses was also the standard sweetener of the time, so business was going well. One day, the company was getting ready to transport 2.3 million gallons of Puerto Rican molasses to a nearby plant in Cambridge. The tank was 50 feet tall and 90 feet wide (!). And then it collapsed, and all hell broke loose.

Here is how the Boston Post described it:

Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage … Here and there struggled a form—whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was … Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings—men and women—suffered likewise.

The Army was summoned. They worked through the night, trying to rescue as many people as they could. Rescuers found it difficult to make their way through the syrup. Doctors and nurses set up a makeshift hospital. It took four days before they stopped searching for victims.

Cleanup crews had to use saltwater to wash the hardened molasses away and sand to absorb it. Because of the foot traffic of rescue workers, molasses moved around the city quickly. For months, “everything a Bostonian touched was sticky.”

Local residents filed a class-action lawsuit against Purity Distilling. Amazingly, and I swear this is true, Purity Distilling claimed that the tank had been blown up by anarchists*. After three years of hearings, a court-appointed auditor found Purity Distlling responsible, and they had to pay out $600,000 in out-of-court settlements.

*What likely caused the accident was a sudden increase in temperature. The temperature had risen to about 40 degrees Fahrenheit after several days of frigid cold.

For decades, local residents in the North End claimed they could smell molasses on warm summer days.