Monday, August 15, 2016

What NPR Left Out

I just heard the Kitchen Sisters' segment on the Farallon Egg Wars, which was, in audio terms, beautifully wrought.  And yet it's disappointing, though not necessarily surprising, how cliched their telling of the story (which relies largely on Gary Kamiya's account) was.

The actual political backdrop of the "war" is far more interesting than you would glean from hearing the segment on NPR. 1850's San Francisco wasn't just about bar-room brawls and desperadoes - it was also about a significant amount of progressive political action on the part of the very ethnic group blamed most for the egging. Which was a point I'd hoped to impart to Nikki Silva over the course of a two-hour radio interview. Alas....

Moreover, few would know about this story were it not for Susan Casey, the author of The Devil's Teeth. Ms. Casey widely revived the history from Peter White's account, with Ms. Casey placing a particular and penetrating focus on the actual letters sent by Lighthouse Keeper Amos Clift. Casey's rendering is how I myself learned the story.  And after working on my particular focus of the story for over a year, I in turn imparted the story to an unaware Kamiya over drinks with David Talbot in 2011; Kamiya subsequently mined the material himself in his own book. That the NPR segment neglected the fascinating sociopolitical forces behind the story, and elided Casey's lively telling altogether in favor of Kamiya's is... why I get my news from the BBC these days.

Monday, August 8, 2016

From NPR to the Levy Project

Nearly two years ago I did an interview about the Farallon Egg War with Nikki Silva, which is airing on NPR's Morning Edition on August 15.  If so, I still have no idea what part of the two-hour interview that she conducted will actually make it into the brief audio segment, but in the event you stumbled onto this site after hearing that segment, welcome - you'll find plenty of material about the egg wars on this blogspot.

More recently, I've been working on a short comic about what has often been called America's version of "L'Affaire Dreyfus." That's right - I'm working on a graphic history about the 1967 court-martial of Dr. Howard B. Levy.

Levy, a conservative Brooklynite who developed an acute social conscience during his medical residency in the early 1960's, became clumsily but earnestly involved in the civil rights movement. And, after he was drafted into service during Vietnam, he became, somewhat accidentally, the genesis of the G.I. anti-war movement.

Levy's story is frankly among the weirdest, funniest, most inspiring tales I've ever heard.  It's like a Coen Brothers comedy, but with a wise-cracking Jewish Jeff Bridges in the lead.

Levy's court-martial was, at the time, a closely watched trial, with over 100 journalists descending upon Fort Jackson, S.C., for the sentencing.  The reporters included Pulitzer Prize-winning war reporter Homer Bigart, of The New York Times; the ever-shrewd Green Beret-turned-journalist Donald Duncan, who founded Ramparts; and the legendary Andrew Kopkind of The New York Review of Books.

But today, who remembers?

I'd like to fix that, while the great and funny Howard Levy is still alive, kicking, and able to recall so many Proustian details of his experiences. Talking to Howard on the telephone is like having someone take your hand and guide you through an intimate and very funny film about a truly galvanizing moment in history. The problem is, Howard Levy can talk faster than I can draw. What he really deserves is not just a comic book, but also a great video biographer.  That said, I am honored to get to draw the man and will continue to do so until the project is finished.

Here are a couple of pages, the proposal gets sent out next week.  The thin man is Levy, the fat man is the great civil rights attorney Charles B. Morgan, who represented not just Levy, but also Muhammad Ali in his own fight against the U.S. Army.  Levy's case was the first to invoke the Nuremburg Defense (in a manner quite different than its subsequent use during the Lt. Calley/My Lai court-martial.)

All the text balloons below contain actual quotes from actual people involved on base during the court-martial. I have to apologize in advance that someone I've quoted used the N-word. (In short, I'm sorry that most historical accounts might include some ugly language and ugly acts, but it's our responsibility to try to portray it accurately.)

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Curiouser and Curiouser...

A week ago I found myself in a windstorm that had set upon San Francisco Bay. And oddly, at the same moment, there appeared in my email, custom-designed to distract me from the gales, a curious and detailed missive from one H.D. Miller.  In my noreasterly-addled state, it almost seemed that the blast of information Miller provided - in fact the email itself - must have been delivered by the winds, as in some Homeric epic.

But of course, that's not how "the internets" works!  Or so the kids tell me....

H.D. Miller, the curious-missive-sender, is a professor in Tennessee.  He wrote a fascinating email, and included a link to an even more interesting article he wrote fleshing out my partial answer to the question of why there was no poultry business in San Francisco during the Gold Rush or the two decades that followed.

I could hardly do his incredibly funny and entertaining post justice in describing it (you can't possibly do justice to a man who refers to the failure of so many failed 19th-century California chicken start-ups as "Ozymandian ruins"), so I ask that you read it via the link below.  I am quite honored to be included in reference to his inquiry.

What I liked even more about his email, was that it included some additional information about that greater mystery: Charles Melville Scammon and his conversion from hunter to conservationist.  I hope that I will not offend Professor Miller in quoting from his very engaging email:

"One of the things that caught my attention about Scammon, was that phrase “strange duality”, i.e. a killer of whales and conservationist. The more I read about this period, the more I’m convinced that Melville’s conversion isn’t that unusual in America in the late 19th century. In my piece on poultry farming, I talk a little bit about William Temple Hornaday, the man who saved the American bison from extinction. He’d been a taxidermist before becoming a conservationist, one who had gleefully shot 24 orangoutangs in Borneo a decade earlier. There’s book to be written about the conversion of American hunters like Scammon, Hornaday and Teddy Roosevelt to conservationism."

I suppose this means that I still have Charles Melville Scammon a bit too much on the brain.

Speaking of whalers, I picked up Matt Kish's "Moby-Dick In Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page" which is a delightful and subversive entry in the many homages to Melville's own subversive classic.  I viewed the book some years back, but had been so deep into my own project that I failed to understand how funny and lively his drawings are. I feel quite refreshed after perusing it, and hope you will give it a read.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Scammon's Note on Confederate Pirate Ship "Shenandoah"

Of all the ridiculous events that took place during the Civil War, none seem quite so ridiculous as the exploits of the Confederate privateer Shenandoah.  (That's the CSS Shenandoah, not the USS Shenandoah, an entirely different ship.)
Captain James Iredell Waddell, for whom the Civil War ended late.
Pencil sketch by Eva Chrysanthe
Technically speaking, the most notorious "accomplishments" of the CSS Shenandoah - the destruction of nearly half of the Yankee whaling fleet in the Bering Sea - took place in the two months after the Civil War had actually ended on April 9, 1865.  That's in large part due to the fact that the Shenandoah's Captain, James Iredell Waddell, refused to believe newspaper accounts that the war had ended, and continued burning the Yankee whaling ships it had looted.

The whole affair involves too many ironies to recount here. I bring it up only because I just found note - here at The Bancroft Library - of the Shenandoah's path of destruction in Captain Scammon's "Journal of the Flagship Golden Gate: Western Union Telegraph Expedition."

On September 27, 1865, Scammon laconically notes - after a far more heartfelt and lengthy page extolling the virtues and skills of the native tribes of Fort St. Michael:

"All the necessary business connected with the Expedition having been arranged for the present he (Captain Marston) returned on board. We found the Brig Victoria lying here... the Captain visited the ship and from him we learned of the destruction by the Pirate "Shenandoah" of a large number of the whaling fleet cruising the Arctic."
That's it? No mention that of the 38 ships captured by Waddell, at least one of those destroyed - the William C. Nye - had once been under Scammon's command?

Is it possible that the Union-loyal Captain Scammon may have felt some relief that Confederate Captain Waddell had been so ruthless, given that Scammon's conservationist feelings were at that time being greatly encouraged by J.R. Browne and William Healey Dall? 

Were it not for the utterly unintentional conservationist Confederate pirate ships, would whale populations not have rebounded to the extent they were able to? 

The following is a list of the Yankee whaling ships destroyed by Captain Waddell and the crew of the CSS Shenandoah (list does not include Yankee whaling ships that were bonded by Waddell):

  • December 4, 1864:  whaling bark Edward, burned  off Tristan de Cunha in the South Atlantic Ocean. 
  • December 29, 1864:  bark Delphine, of Bangor, Maine, burned in the Indian Ocean
  • April 3, 1865: whaling bark Pearl, of New London, burned in the harbor at Pohnpei Island in Micronesia
  • April 4, 1865:  whaling ship Hector of New Bedford burned in the harbor at Pohnpei Island in Micronesia; whaler Edward Carey of San Francisco was burned in the same harbor. 
  • April 10, 1865: the whaling bark Harvest was burned at Pohnpei Island.
  • May 28, 1865: the whaling bark Abigail of New Bedford burned in the the Sea of Okhotsk. 
  • June 22, 1865: whaling ship Euphrates of New Bedford, burned in the Bering Strait; whaling bark Jirah Swift of New Bedford, burned in the Bering Sea; whaling ship William Thompson of New Bedford, burned in the Bering Sea northeast of Cape Narrows; whaling bark Sophia of New Bedford, burned in the Bering Sea; Brigantine Susan & Abigail of San Francisco, burned in the Bering Sea.
  • June 26, 1865: whaling ship Gipsey was burned in the Bering Strait; whaling ship Nimrod was burned in the Bering Sea; whaler Brunswick was burned near the Bering Straits Narrows; whaling bark Congress of New Bedford was burned near the Bering Strait.
  • June 28, 1865: whaling bark Covington of Warren, Rhode Island was burned in East Cape Bay, near Bering Strait Narrows; whaling ship Favorite of New Haven was burned in East Cape Bay; whaling ships Hillman, Isaac Howland, Martha and Nassau of New Bedford were burned in East Cape Bay; whaling bark Waverly of New Haven was burned near the Diomede Islands.
After burning their last whaler, Confederate Captain Waddell - a man without a country and a Southern rebel who found himself without a cause - sailed down to San Francisco with the intention of shelling the city, still believing the Confederate cause had not been lost. Fortunately for everyone involved, shortly before entering the Golden Gate, Waddell was finally convinced by a passing ship that General Lee had surrendered.  Which was convenient, because shelling San Francisco, already protected by Fort Point, would have been a pain in the ass to effect. 

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Happy Valentine's Day!

Who says couples must necessarily be romantic?  I've been going through Scammon's scrapbooks over at the Bancroft Archives, and drawing the members of his Alaska expedition (officially: The Western Union Telegraph Expedition to Russian America) in two's. Mostly because that's the space my sketchbook allows.

George Klinefelter and J.T, Rothrock

So it was a pleasant surprise to learn that many of these lesser-known men turned out to be very big deals later in life.  I guess it follows that if you have the ambition, connections, and luck to get yourself on an expedition like that, you might continue in similar fashion. Like J.T. Rothrock, the Harvard man who had provided heroic service as a captain in the Union army, and who later became one of the leading conservationists of the 19th century. It's part of the romance of the 19th century: That a man could do, if not all, then a whole hell of a lot in a young country that hadn't yet established itself on the world stage. Klinefelter, on the other hand, not so much, but who knows? 

Here are another two members of the expedition:

Sabin, on right

John I. Sabin started out on the Expedition as a mere messenger boy. He later became an important player in telecommunications in California, then was called to Chicago to revamp that city's phone systems later in the century. Died in a big house (his own big house) on the 2800 block of California Street, which is not too shabby

Who knows who the bearded guy on the left was? He's "unidentified", but he's catalogued as 1950.003 14.3, if you want to look up his mugshot in Scammon's scrapbooks.

Then there's the great and tragic Kennicott, which I'll have to save for later, because it involves drawing a lot of buckskin. And Dall, the teenaged science prodigy. In the meantime, here are two more fellows rounding out the facial hair brigade on the W.U.T. Expedition:

On the right, it's Lewis C. Butler. To date, I have yet to figure out what function he fulfilled on the expedition, but with a beard like that, he certainly saved a lot of time by not shaving, so hopefully he was fantastically productive.  The guy on the left is yet another unidentified crew member, with tremendous mutton-chop sideburns. Laugh all you want at their beards, but given the extremely cold temperatures, and the uncertainty of the journey, it was probably reasonable to keep as much hair on your face as possible.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Wesley Marx on Scammon's Leatherbound Journal

From Wesley Marx's 1960 American Heritage magazine article, which gets at the strange split in Scammon's dual identity as both whaler and biologist:

"At the same time he had been ordering his harpooners to bomb the whales and his flensers to strip the blubber, Scammon was also measuring the girth of dead whales, inspecting the contents of their stomachs, and executing precise drawings of their conformations. The Captain jotted down his detailed observations alongside log entries that recorded the number of whales struck and barrels filled."

And that, as much as The Melville Society's interest in Scammon-as-Ishmael, is what bedevils me about Scammon:  He is a man engaged in the tightly-focused capitalist drive for oil, who doesn't just maintain the idealistic curiosity of the naturalist, but acts on it. 

It's as if he is two totally different men.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


How do you explain a really exciting find?  And what if you make... three really exciting finds in one day going through Bancroft's Charles Melville Scammon papers?

The big thing, the holy grail, the "rosebud" of Scammon's later literary and scientific life, this is what I pulled out of a file envelope yesterday.

The seed of the great man's landmark work: the little three-inch by five-inch leather-bound, water-blood-and-oil-stained book of perfectly recorded measurements of whales, seals and dolphins collected in the torrent of bloody commercial slaughter that was our demand for whale oil.

Just to hold it in your hands and to think of what it took to make!  To think that Scammon, who, while commanding so many men and so many whaleboats through so much bloody chaos and fatigue, had the presence of mind to take these perfectly ordered notes.  Notes which no scientist had endeavored to collect, and which no whaler would ever conceive of collecting. 

And to synthesize, more than a decade later, those notes into a book that would change the way we looked at mammalian studies? 

I felt less elation than a sense of awe. Followed by the dreadful realization that a man with less than a high school education had managed what no modern Harvard grad, currently engaged in tweeting "pix" of his free lunch at the Google or Facebook corporate campuses, would even conceive of trying. We are not better men today, I am sorry to say. 

The other two finds were in many ways just as interesting, but more on that later.