Nov. 3, 2011

Nature — the Gentlest Mother is,
Impatient of no Child —
The feeblest — or the waywardest —
Her Admonition mild —

In Forest — and the Hill —
By Traveller — be heard —
Restraining Rampant Squirrel —
Or too impetuous Bird —

How fair Her Conversation —
A Summer Afternoon —
Her Household — Her Assembly —
And when the Sun go down —

Her Voice among the Aisles
Incite the timid prayer
Of the minutest Cricket —
The most unworthy Flower —

When all the Children sleep —
She turns as long away
As will suffice to light Her lamps —
Then bending from the Sky —

With infinite Affection —
And infiniter Care —
Her Golden finger on Her lip —
Wills Silence — Everywhere —

"790" by Emily Dickinson. Public domain. (buy now)

The outlaw who called himself "Black Bart the poet" robbed his last stagecoach on this date in 1883. His real name was Charles E. Bowles, which he later changed to "Boles." He was born in England, and his family moved to New York when he was two. He gradually made his way west, living in Illinois for a while and serving in the Civil War with the 116th Illinois regiment. Eventually, he wound up in San Francisco.

He is believed to have robbed 28 Wells Fargo stagecoaches over an eight-year period. At his fourth and fifth robberies, he left notes behind, including a bit of verse, and signed them "Black Bart, the P o 8." His most famous bit of doggerel read: "I've labored long and hard for bread / For honor and for riches / But on my corns too long you've tread / You fine-haired Sons of Bitches." He never fired a shot, and was terrified of horses, so he committed all of his robberies on foot. He was also exceedingly polite, asking coach drivers to "please throw down your strongbox" and refusing to take the money or jewels of female passengers, even if they offered.

Boles' robbery career came to an end when he was shot in the hand while fleeing the scene with his loot. He got away, but left most of his personal items behind, and later wrapped a handkerchief around his hand to stop the bleeding. While searching the area, the posse found his battered suitcase containing, among other things, another old handkerchief knotted around a handful of buckshot; the handkerchief bore a laundry mark. The Wells Fargo detective in charge of the case began visiting each of the 91 laundries in San Francisco, hoping to find a match. After about a week, he did, and the laundryman said the handkerchief belonged to a miner, C. E. Bolton, who stopped into town every week or so. The detectives lay in wait outside Bolton's boardinghouse and apprehended him the next day. Wells Fargo only pressed charges for the last robbery, and Boles was sentenced to six years in San Quentin. He served four, got out early for good behavior, and went back to New York, where he presumably died around 1888.

The last public execution at London's Tyburn Gallows took place on this date in 1783. Tyburn was located near the western end of what is now Oxford Street, and the first execution took place there in 1196, long before the famous "Tyburn Tree" gallows was erected (near the current location of Marble Arch) in 1571. The Tyburn Tree was noteworthy in that it had a triangular shape, allowing several people to be executed at once; in 1649, 24 prisoners were hanged simultaneously. The gallows was in the middle of the roadway, and was hard to miss; in fact, it became a tourist attraction and people would journey from miles around to watch the public executions. The villagers of Tyburn erected stands and charged people admission.

The first victim of the Tyburn Tree was Dr. John Story, a Catholic who refused to acknowledge Elizabeth I as the queen and head of the Church of England. Elizabeth's half sister and predecessor, Queen Mary — also a Catholic — had earned the nickname "Bloody Mary" for her relentless pursuit of Protestants during her brief reign: In five years, she burned almost 300 religious dissenters at the stake. John Story had been one of the chief prosecutors of heretics, and when the Protestant Queen Elizabeth succeeded Mary in 1558, he ran into some trouble for boasting about his exploits. He was briefly imprisoned but fled overseas; he was eventually captured, tried for high treason, and condemned to death by hanging, drawing, and quartering.

Eventually, urban sprawl overtook the village of Tyburn, and people began to make noises about having such a macabre landmark right outside their front doors, so the Tyburn Tree was taken down, and subsequent executions were carried out on a portable gallows. The site of public executions was moved to Newgate Prison, and the last person to be executed at the site of the Tyburn gallows was a highwayman, John Austin. Coming upon John Spicer, a laboring man who was traveling through Kent, Austin had accompanied him on his journey for some several days, sharing lodging and food with him and apparently befriending him. Austin then allegedly lured Spicer to the woods, where he and an associate robbed and mangled the laborer. At Austin's trial, the judge said, "Under the mask of friendship you have robbed a poor innocent man, deluded by your treacherous designs, and your false friendship: it is further aggravated by the baseness and inhumanity of your deceit, which cannot entitle you to any instance of mercy, but requires that you may be made an example of immediate justice."

Austin's last words were reportedly, "Good people, I request your prayers for the salvation of my departing soul; let my example teach you to shun the bad ways I have followed; keep good company, and mind the word of God. Lord have mercy on me, Jesus look down with pity on me, Christ have mercy on my poor soul."

Today is the birthday of playwright Terrence McNally (1939) (books by this author), born in St. Petersburg, Florida, and raised in Corpus Christi, Texas. His first play was produced in 1964, when he was 25 years old. He received generally favorable reviews, but his first big success didn't come until 1987, with Frankie and Johnny at the Clair de Lune, the story of a middle-aged cook and a frumpy waitress who find love in the diner where they both work. Kiss of the Spider Woman (1992) was his first foray into musical theatre; he also co-wrote a musical adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime (novel, 1975; play, 1997). He's written several plays that take on the subject of homosexuality, including Lips Together, Teeth Apart (1991); Love! Valour! Compassion! (1994); and Corpus Christi (1997). He recently announced that his next project is a new book for the Rodgers and Hart musical Pal Joey.

He said, "If a play isn't worth dying for, maybe it isn't worth writing."

A little dog named Laika was launched into space aboard Sputnik 2 on this date in 1957. The mission for Sputnik 2 was to determine if a living animal could survive being launched into orbit. Laika was a stray that had been picked up from the Moscow streets, a 13-pound mutt with perky ears, a curly tail, and uncertain ancestry. She probably had a little spitz or terrier in her family tree, maybe a Siberian husky or even a beagle here and there. She was three years old, a good-natured dog that came to have several nicknames: Lemon, Little Curly, and Little Bug. Her name, Laika, means "barker" and was a generic term applied to all spitz-type dogs. The American press called her "Muttnik." The Soviet space program deliberately chose strays for their missions because it was felt that they had proven themselves to be hardy, having already survived deprivation, extremes in temperature, and stress.

Laika was the first animal to orbit the Earth. She was harnessed inside a snug, padded cabin with some ability to move, but not much. The capsule was climate-controlled, and she had access to food and water, and there were electrodes monitoring her vital signs, but everyone knew the capsule was not designed to return to Earth in one piece. Knowing that Laika had little time to live, one of the scientists took her home to play with his children a few days before the launch.

For many years, reports of her death were inconsistent; one report said that she lived for six days, until her oxygen ran out. The Soviet government insisted she had been euthanized via a pre-planned poisoned food portion prior to that, to make her death more humane. In 1999, it was revealed that vital signs ceased to be transmitted about five to seven hours after the launch, possibly because the booster rocket failed to separate from the capsule, causing the thermal control system to malfunction and the cabin to become unbearably hot.

In 1998, after the fall of the Soviet Union, one of the scientists spoke of his regret for Laika. He said: "Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I'm sorry about it. We shouldn't have done it ... We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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