Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Caught Between Two Cultures: The Brothers Tsarnaev in a Shadow World and the Sad Story of Plenty Horses

More and more it appears that, to whatever degree Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is ultimately found to be fully culpable for his participation in the terrible bombing last week at the Boston Marathon, the driving force behind the attack was almost certainly his older brother, Tamerlan, who - it appears - wanted to be killed in some twisted idea of finding glory for the  Chechen or Islamic cause.  Unlike Dzhokhar, who was only 8 years old when his family immigrated to the U.S., Tamerlan was 14 and had a much harder time adjusting.  A few years ago, their parents returned to Dagestan in the Caucasus region, leaving both sons on their own.

In this regard, the case of Plenty Horses (Senika-Wakan-Ota) is instructive.  Plenty Horses was twenty-two years old in January of 1891, one week after the Wounded Knee massacre.  From a family of BrulĂ© Sioux, he had been born in 1869, eight years before the Battle of the Little Bighorn and been steeped, in his youth, in the values of the traditional way of life which centered on hunting, family relationships, and an intensely personal religious bond to the natural world.  

However, when he was 14, his parents sent him to the Carlisle School in Pennsylvania, the stated goal of which was “Kill the Indian to Save the Man.”  Arriving at the Carlisle School in the Fall of 1883, his long hair was cut short, his traditional clothes were taken away from him and he was made to wear the clothing of the whites and, most important, he was forbidden from speaking his native tongue.  In all of these regards, his experience was no different from any other Indian child sent to Carlisle.  Teachers remembered Plenty Horses as a quiet student of average intelligence who made little progress during his five years at the school.

When Plenty Horses returned to his home on the Rosebud Reservation in 1888, he was no longer an Indian nor was not a white person either. Later he explained:

“I found that the education I had received was of no benefit to me. There was no chance to get employment, nothing for me to do whereby I could earn my board and clothes, no opportunity to learn more and remain with the whites. It disheartened me and I went back to live as I had before going to school. To forget my school habits and English speech was an easy matter.”

At Rosebud, government officials and Christian missionaries continued the process begun at Carlisle: they assailed native values and sought to transform the proud Lakota into placid Christian farmers embracing the values of white America. The aim, as one Commissioner of Indian Affairs put it with unintended irony, was to "make the Indian feel at home in America."

During this time, the Lakota were living on half-rations during a brutally cold winter.  They could not leave their reservations without permission from the (white) Indian Agents who controlled them, and, even if they could have, their historic source of sustenance, the buffalo herds that had once freely roamed the plains, had been hunted to near extinction.

Plenty Horses had fled to the Bad Lands with some friends following the appearance of soldiers at Rosebud and Pine Ridge Agencies in November of 1890. A month later he had come to Pine Ridge Agency along with a number of other followers of  Short Bull and Kicking Bear as a result of an Army General's patient diplomacy. On December 29th Plenty Horses had heard the distant rumble of guns and hastened to Wounded Knee. “It was an awful sight,” he remembered. “The survivors told such a pitiful tale.”

A little more than a week after the massacre, on the morning of January 7th, Plenty Horses was out from his camp watching that no troops came to harm his father and relatives.  He later said that he "was in a bad frame of mind. Our home was destroyed, our family separated, and all hope of good times was gone. There was nothing to live for.”  He was one of a party of about forty Sioux that chanced on Army Lt. Ned Casey and two Cheyenne scouts, White Moon and Rock Road, on the slope of a low hill about two and a half miles north of one of the Sioux winter camps.  Though, by all accounts, the Lieutenant's task was a peaceful one, Plenty Horses surprised his Lakota companions by pulling out his rifle and shooting Lt. Casey in the back of the head.

Plenty Horses was seized and arrested by the Army in a small camp north of the agency. He was quickly removed from the reservation and imprisoned in the  guardhouse at Fort Meade, about a hundred and twenty-five miles to the north, near Sturgis, South Dakota. 

As March gave way to April, Plenty Horses still had no defense counsel, and he grew so despondent that visitors to his cell feared that he might try to take his own life.  Both he and his father, Living Bear, had written repeatedly to a Deadwood lawyer known as a friend of the Indians, imploring him to help, but the lawyer could not afford to take the case without fee, and the defendant and his family could not scrape together the three to five hundred dollars the lawyer felt would be needed.  Ultimately, the case was moved to the federal district court at Sioux Falls and two able young Sioux Falls lawyers, George Nock and D. E. Powers, were retained. 

Nock and Powers came up with a novel defense: they sought to demonstrate that the Army and the Sioux, and specifically Casey and Plenty Horses, viewed themselves as belligerents engaged in warfare, that a state of war existed between the Sioux and the Army and that the killing of a belligerent during a state of war could not be regarded as a criminal offense within the competence of the civil courts.

At the trial, Plenty Horses was allowed to testify, over Nock and Power's objection, in English, despite his lawyers' contention that the nuances of their clients' motives and state of mind could not adequately be conveyed without his testifying in his native Lakota language with the assistance of an interpreter.  As recalled by the foreman of the jury, Valentine T. McGiIIycuddy, a former agent at Pine Ridge, Plenty Horses declared:

"I am an Indian. Five years I attended Carlisle and was educated in the ways of the white man.… I was lonely. I shot the lieutenant so I might make a place for myself among my people. Now I am one of them. I shall be hung and the Indians will bury me as a warrior. They will be proud of me. I am satisfied."

The trial ended with the jury deadlocked, at the end of twenty-three ballots, as to whether Plenty Horses was guilty of murder or only of manslaughter—in effect a hung jury.

A second trial was convened.  Again Nock and Powers made their procedural argument. This time, the Army was forced to respond.   Testimony, together with military reports introduced in evidence, clearly established the Army’s view that it was at war. Baldwin also conceded under questioning that Casey could even be regarded as a spy in enemy territory, although he made it plain that “we do not call such a thing spying, we call it reconnoitering.”

During the lunch break, it was brought it to the Judge's attention that, if no state of war existed between the Army and the Sioux, then the atrocities perpetrated on the Indians at Wounded Knee could not be justified as an act of war, and the soldiers who gunned the Indians down were chargeable with murder.  After the lunch recess, Judge Shiras announced to the astonished participants and spectators that the guilt or innocence of Plenty Horses turned wholly on the war issue and, since the defense had shown beyond doubt that war existed, the slaying of Casey by Plenty Horses could only be called an act of war, and Judge Shiras could not accept any verdict other than acquittal.

Plenty Horses and the other Indian witnesses were packed aboard a train for the trip back to the reservation.  A large crowd had gathered to see them off.  The Indians put forward American Horse to say what was on their minds. “What must the Indian do?” the chief asked his white audience. “Die, starve or fight? We ask not much. Give us a chance to learn your ways and do not charge us three prices for what white man gets for one. The spot of snow is melting. Soon the Indian will be no more. Give us a chance, keep your treaty."

Of course, the whites did not keep their treaties, and, ultimately, Plenty Horses' misbegotten act in killing a white soldier to make a place for himself among his people did not bring the end that he had wished.  He was not hung by the white's court nor did he die a warrior's death.  Rather, like other Carlisle graduates who went back to the reservation, Plenty Horses lived miserably in a shadow world which was neither Indian nor white.  Indians on the Rosebud Reservation dimly remember him as a lonely figure living quietly with his wife, Josephine, and son, Charles, in a one-room log cabin on Oak Creek. Agency files record his death on June 15, 1933, a year after the death of his wife and son.

So it will likely be for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  If convicted, he will spend the rest of his life, alone, in a very small cell in a federal prison, a pathetic footnote to a misbegotten act by his older brother to make a place for himself between two worlds.


Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Whyos and Piker Ryan's Infamous Price List

The Whyos were a street gang from the Five Points section of Manhattan whose center of activities were the old Fourth and Sixth Wards (in present-day geography, roughly from the Two Bridges neighborhood, along the East River, to Lower Chinatown and the Courthouse District).  They were formed just after the Civil War from the remnants of an earlier Five Points gang, the Chichesters, and they were the predominant NYC criminal gang from the late 1860's until the early 1890's, when they were supplanted by Monk Eastman's gang (the Eastman's) and Paul Kelly's gang (the Five Points gang).  The Whyo's name derived from their wordless signals to each other, which sounded - to outsiders - like a bird or owl calling, "Why-oh!"

Handguns were not yet a common weapon of the criminal classes.  The most widely used handgun at the end of the Civil War was the Colt Army Model 1860, a six shot revolver with a 10.5" steel barrel.  At 14" total length (including the wooden handgrip) it was far too big to conceal except under heavy garments.  Smaller guns, such as the Derringer (used to assassinate President Lincoln) and Pepper Boxes, while easily concealable, were often unreliable, and were always under-powered and ineffective, except at a very close range.  Furthermore, most of the handguns of this era did not have rifled barrels, a further reason why many shots missed their mark.  Finally, so much firepower was needed to propel the bullet or projectile, that the gun often jerked up, leading to the practice of "shooting from the hip" since the shooter could steady the firearm against his side, aim for the chest (the largest mass of target) of the intended victim's body and hope that the bullet found its target.

It is no wonder then that much of the crime of this time period was still carried out using more exotic and/or medieval weapons: blackjacks, slingshots, eye-gougers and a variety of knives.

In addition to functioning as a gang to extort money from gambling houses (faro and stuss were the games of choice, at the time) and brothels, the Whyos (like most gangs) also hired out their services, oftentimes to Tammany Hall or rival political organizations to "get out the vote" or "get rid of a problem."  When Whyos gang member Piker Ryan (Piker is a slang term of the time which meant a low level robber, or an itinerant criminal) was apprehended in 1884 by the New York City Municipal Police, he had on his person the following list of "services offered," with a price for each:

Most of the terms on the list are self-explanatory; a few require some explanation.  "Both eyes blacked" means, of course, to punch someone so as to give him a "shiner" over each eye.  "Jacked out" meant to render someone unconscious by use of a blackjack.  "Ear chawed off" is exactly what it implies: biting someone's ear off.   While, Mike Tyson nothwithstanding, this sounds fairly barbaric to our present day sensibility, this method of assault was actually not uncommon in an era when collecting body parts of a victim was both a common punishment and a deterrent (cf, "scalping," a practice which dates back to pre-Biblical times and did not - as is commonly thought - originate with Native Americans).  Finally, the ultimate crime, murder, has an almost "down homey" name associated with it: "doing the big job."

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Why Historical TV Series and Movies Often Get it Wrong

You know the experience:  you're watching "Titantic" or one of the recent TV series set in 19th century or turn-of-the-century America.  You're really into the plot, the setting and the characters until... you get this uneasy feeling that something is not right with the composition:  maybe it's an extra playing an upper class passenger on a luxury ocean liner and they are chewing gum in front of the characters playing their parents; maybe it's a haircut that looks too modern; maybe it's a line of dialogue that has no place in the time and setting in which the scene is set; or maybe it's something more basic: the faces of the actors look too modern, too contemporary.

If you look at photos from the dawn of the age of photography in the mid-19th century, several things are clear.  First, most of the photos are posed and most of the visages are serious, sometimes frowning (oftentimes the case with mugshots) and often melancholy.  This reflected several technological and cultural constraints of the time.   Exposures were long, initially, several minutes or more.  It was far easier to hold a neutral expression than it was a smile.  Also, photography was the first instance in which the masses could afford to have portraits of themselves (only the wealthy commissioned paintings), and a portrait was regarded with a solemnity unthinkable today.

If you narrow down your gaze to 19th century photographs of the poor and criminal classes (which, of course, are overlapping categories) another thing becomes clear:  many of the faces portrayed in the photographs seem "of another time" to us.  In part, this is because of their manner of dress or hairstyles.  But, in large part, it is because of their asymmetry.  In a time when dentistry was still mostly a matter of pulling rotten and decayed teeth and only the middle and upper classes could afford partial or full dentures (the technology to embed implants did not yet exist; partial dentures replaced the missing teeth - these were made of carved ivory or porcelain, sometimes from teeth from cadavers; none were cheap), the face of many of these people reflect hollow cheeks on one side or other asymmetries.
                                          (Left to Right: Whyos gang members Bill Hurley, Googy Corcora & Dorsey Doyle)            

 Piker Ryan

One of my pet peeves with depictions of this era (or other historical eras) on film or TV is that the actors cast in the roles look "too pretty,"  meaning too modern.  Of course, a handsome actor with a symmetric face who is also a consummate artist (Daniel Day Lewis, say) can animate his character's face in such a way that you totally believe that he is Bill the Butcher, or Abraham Lincoln.  More often, however, the actor is miscast, or the script is filled with "tells" that give away the present day or the director doesn't understand the world that he or she is depicting.

Friday, April 5, 2013

"Gangs" of Nieuw-Amsterdam: Slavery, Class and the "Great Negro Insurrection of 1741"

Scores of years before the events depicted in Martin Scorcese's "The Gangs of New York," after the Dutch colony had been taken by the British and was under the sway of British law, the boundaries of the colony extended as far north on the island as Chambers Street, beyond which were fields, marshes and the Collect Pond.  The population of the island of the former Manhattoes had swelled to 10,000, one-fifth of whom were slaves and, of the remaining 8,000 inhabitants, a good percentage of these were poor whites, some of whom had themselves only recently thrown off the yoke of indentured servitude.  The economy of the British colony of New York, by the fourth decade of the 18th century, remained largely mercantile, dependent upon trade with Europe and the colonies in the West Indies.  Slaves in New York worked not in plantations, but alongside whites in small shops and factories.

The conditions of slavery in New York were no less brutal, however, than those intrinsic to the plantation system of the agrarian southern colonies of Virginia or the Carolinas.   Rumors of a conspiracy arose against a background of economic competition between poor whites and slaves; a severe winter and recent slave revolts in South Carolina and the Caribbean. In March and April 1741, a series of 13 fires erupted in Lower Manhattan, the most significant one within the walls of Fort George, then the home of the governor. After another fire at a warehouse, a slave was arrested after having been seen fleeing it. A 16-year old Irish indentured servant, Mary Burton, arrested in a case of stolen goods, testified against the others, implicating them as participants in a supposed \ conspiracy of poor whites and blacks to burn the city, kill the white men, take the white women for themselves, and elect a new king and governor.  

 The criminal investigation was led by a judge named Horsmanden, who arrested two slaves in connection with one of the fires.  They were both burned at the stake. Before their executions, they confessed to burning the fort and named dozens of others as co-conspirators. News of the "conspiracy" set off a stampede of arrests. At the height of the hysteria, nearly half the city's male slaves over the age of 16 were in jail. The number of arrests totaled 152 blacks and 20 whites. They were tried and convicted in a show trial.
The supposed conspiracy centered on a tavern on what would today be considered the Lower West Side (Liberty at Greenwich Streets), run by a poor, illiterate white named John Hughson.   His tavern became a social meeting place for slaves, free blacks and poor, working class whites, some of whom formed informal clubs named "the Geneva Club," "Smith's Fly Boys" and "the Long Bridge Boys."   When he was arrested at Hughson’s Tavern, investigators thought that John Hughson and his wife Sarah were trading in stolen goods. Mary Burton, Hughson’s 16-year-old servant, was brought in for questioning. The investigators offered her a choice: She could tell all that she “knew” and gain freedom from being a servant, or go to prison. She chose the first option, and the Hughsons were quickly arrested. Then fires broke out—once there were four in one day. New Yorkers panicked, fearing the worst—another slave uprising. Again investigators turned to Mary Burton, and she again told them what they wanted to hear.

Mary claimed that Hughson’s Tavern was a meeting place for blacks and whites plotting to burn the city, murder its inhabitants, and seize power. The slaves would become masters, she said, and Caesar, the thief, would become governor. Her story was incredible, but it was believed.  The allegations were that Hughson, or another white man, incited the slaves to riot and take over the city.  All of the evidence was coerced by threats.  Dozens of blacks were given the death penalty, as was Hughson. 

Most of the convicted people were hanged or burnt at the stake - how many is uncertain. The bodies of two supposed ringleaders, Caesar, a slave, and Hughson, were gibbeted. Their corpses were left to rot in public.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Wounded Knee Massacre Site is for Sale, but not by the Sioux

Gate to the Wounded Knee Cemetery, where scores of  Sioux were buried in 1891.

Chief Big Foot in death, December 31, 1890, while soldiers look on.
I made a pilgrimage to the site this August, on my way back to NYC from LA. When I got to Pine Ridge, it took me hours to work up the nerve to actually visit it, so great was the hold of this place on my imagination. I was hoping to meet with Russell Means, but he had called me two days before to tell me that his cancer had recurred and that he was leaving the next day for "Smell-Ay" for treatment. I finally drifted down to a skateboard park, where I met two lovely women, both mothers in their late 20' or early 30's, who gave me directions to the site. Both had lived on the reservation all of their lives; neither had been to the Wounded Knee cemetery and massacre site. "Too much bad pain," Julie told me. I thought of my Jewish in-laws, who adamantly refused to visit Germany and Poland, much less the "camps" where many of their extended family had been annihilated in Hitler's gas chambers.
Joanie & Sharon, Oglala Sioux, Pine Ridge Reservation.  August, 2012.

When finally I got to Wounded Knee, late in the afternoon, I was overwhelmed, but not in the way that I had expected. I met Gary Rowland, and some other Oglala Sioux, at the concession stand across the highway from the road up to the Wounded Knee cemetery. Their stand was respectful, and anything but honky-tonk. At the same time, fresh from having been at the magnificent Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument two days before, I was stunned and saddened at the lack of any sort of explanatory, interpretive markers describing the massacre site. I had assumed that, since Wounded Knee lay within Pine Ridge Reservation, that the cemetery and the land around it was owned by the Sioux. Apparently, it is not.

Prayer flags and miniature menorah on fence

This place, where the hopes and aspirations of a free people met a violent death a few days after Christmas in 1890, this place which symbolizes the final chapter of the closing of the American West, should be a national monument itself, one jointly administered by and designed in conjunction with the Sioux. This place is a place that every American, white, red or of any other ethnicity, should make a point of visiting. It is the Auschwitz of the American Indian nations, the Ground Zero of the indigenous peoples who were displaced and marginalized in the development of this country and, to quote Arthur Miller, "attention must be paid."


Saturday, March 30, 2013

What Remains of the Five Points

"The Five Points" by George Caitlin (c. 1827)

Anyone who has seen Martin Scorcese's "Gangs of New York" is familiar with the notorious 19th century neighborhood in Lower Manhattan known as "The Five Points."  Because most physical traces of that world no longer exist, Scorcese couldn't film on location.   Instead, together with production designer Dante Ferretti, Scorcese recreated the Five Points of the 1860’s (along with other sets comprising over a mile of mid-nineteenth century Manhattan) at CinecittĂ  Studios in Rome.  This decision, itself, was a tremendous gift to the actors, who otherwise would have had to have devoted a great deal of their creative energies to conjuring up that world while acting against a green screen.

Where, exactly, was the Five Points?  It is today’s lower Chinatown (on the east) and the Courthouse district (on the west).  Between these two very different neighborhoods is today the oddly shaped Columbus Park, formerly known as "Mulberry Bend Park."  For those of you unfamiliar with the history of this area of New York City , here is a link to Dan Kowalski’s nine minute video about the Collect Pond in which I am featured.

Map of the Five Points (salmon overlay) with
contemporary streets & buildings in outline.
Only one of the five points (#2) still exists, along 
with a sliver of the former Paradise Square.

It’s hard for most people to conjure up the older world, since the streets and buildings depicted in the movie have been almost entirely altered since then.  Some streets (e.g., Little Water, most of Cross) have been demapped, others (Orange, Anthony) have been renamed and some streets (Anthony then, now Worth) have been extended.  Finally, the most notorious block of the Five Points neighborhood of the Sixth Ward, bounded by Orange (now Baxter) on the west, Cross (now Mosco) on the south, Mulberry on the east and Bayard on the north, is now a public park. The block was oddly shaped, since both Mulberry and Orange bent at a twenty degree angle to follow the lines of a stream that had drained the Collect Pond to the north, towards the flats below Mt. Bayard.  

Mulberry Bend, on Mulberry Street, c. 1902.  The alley 
known as "Bandit's Roost" opened off to the left, 
 between two buildings just north of the bend.

Because of the bend, the block was unusually deep and long.  This, and the common 19th century practice of jamming buildings into the rear yards of such neighborhoods, meant that there were two, and sometimes three, buildings set back from the street in the intereior of the block.  The character of the block can best be discerned from the names give the  alleys and byways that led deep into its interior: "Bandit's Roost," "Ragpickers' Alley," and "Bottle Alley."  All of the housing on this "superblock" was demolished in the middle of the 19-teens to create Mulberry Bend Park such that, together with the demolition of the Paradise Square area, almost all traces of the Five Points have been obliterated.
"Bandit's Roost" alley, c. 1890.  William Henry McCarty, Jr.  
(a/k/a William H. Bonney) better known as "Billy the Kid,"
 was born less than a mile away, on Allen Street, in 1859

The reason that most all of the courthouses in Manhattan are gathered here is a direct result of its earlier status as the Five Points.  When, in the early 1800’s, the decision was made to replace the aging Revolutionary War era Bridewell Prison (“theBridewell”), it was decided that a new jail and court complex needed to be built.  Nominally called “the Hall of Justice” (but more colloquially referred to as “The Tombs” because of its Egyptian style architecture) the decision was made to locate it in the center of the old Sixth Ward (and, by coincidence, at the center of the former Collect Pond) since, by the late 1820’s, the then new and (briefly) middle-class neighborhood in the Sixth Ward was already deteriorating into what would soon become known as the Five Points and it was thought that locating the jail there would “send a message” to the Irish and black riff-raff to keep them in line.  It did not.

The first Tombs (Hall of Justice), built in the 1830's in the center
of the Sixth Ward and the center of the former Collect Pond.

What most people do not know is that the Five Points, as depicted in that movie, persisted well into the first two decades of the 20th century and that, even today, traces of the Five Points remain.  There are places where one can go down into a subterranean tunnel on one block and emerge, back up into the daylight, one or two blocks over.  I give tours of it for friends.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Posing With the Dead

In the 19th century, childhood mortality rates were extremely high, and it became a common practice for families, especially working class and poor families, to have posed photographs taken of their dead child.  While upper class families usually commissioned the painting of a family portrait once the child was a toddler, such paintings were too costly for those of modest means.  A photograph, by contrast, was relatively affordable, and a post-mortem photograph might have been the only image of the child the family ever had. 

Sometimes the child was shown in a coffin (this was more common for adults). 

 At other times, the corpse of the child is posed, either in bed, on a chair...

...or in the arms of one of the parents, as if to suggest that the child was merely asleep, and not dead.

In a few instances, however, the photographer went so far as to pose the body of the deceased child propped up next to their living relatives, with the eyes of the corpse either propped open or painted onto the negative plate.