Historian of the American West, Professor, and Documentarian
Author: Dr. Matt Luckett
I’m a historian and aspiring documentarian based in Orangevale, California. I teach history at Sierra College and coordinate the Masters in Humanities External Degree program at California State University Dominguez Hills. I also own 7 South Productions, which I established in 2018 as I began pursuing a new career in documentary film production.
Hi folks, First off, thank you to everyone who has reached out to me here, on Facebook, on Twitter, and offline to express their well wishes with respect to my post on Saturday about pursuing a Masters in Counseling. I cannot tell you how much it means to me, especially after months of waiting for admissions decisions, taking psychology prerequisite courses while teaching full-time, and wondering more than once what people would think once they learn about this shift in direction. At the very least, since beginning this process nearly a year ago, I have not yet felt like this has been a mistake. But all your kind words have alleviated much of my anxiety about this process, so thank you.
Of course, having the freedom and privilege to make such a professional change is no small thing in many places, and impossible in others. Here in the United States, both of these words have been hotly contested over the past year, from the George Floyd protests to the Capitol Insurrection and beyond. A lot of these conversations are not only necessary, but long overdue as Americans finally begin to reckon with a history that is far more complex and morally ambivalent than we’d probably like to believe. But I also believe that Memorial Day should cut through the noise and stand on its own merits as an opportunity to pay our respects and remember the hundreds of thousands of Americans who, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and even birthplace, gave their lives in defense of our country.
This is not to say that we cannot relax during a much-deserved day off, eat some barbecue, or enjoy a quiet morning bike ride with virtually no traffic (as I did). We certainly don’t need to spend the entire day flagellating ourselves in prayerful penance for the dead. But hopefully we can all find some way today to express our appreciation for those who made the ultimate sacrifice, including their families.
Talk to you again soon—I’ve missed this whole blogging thing—and take care.
Hi folks, I apologize for being so negligent over these past few months in writing or contributing to this blog. It’s been an interesting few months here in Orangevale, and for all of us I suppose. What’s up with you all? Well, on my end, let’s see . . . I built a fence, I lost a little weight, I was diagnosed with a hernia (the same kind my grandpa had!) and will need a surgery for it soon, I taught several classes, I took two more, I got vaccinated, and I turned 40. Clementine and I traveled to St. Louis for the first time in over a year, which was nice (my dad hadn’t seen his granddaughter since late 2019), and I made my first trip to LA since the pandemic started. Like everyone else, the pandemic has affected me in ways that I’ve barely even begun to appreciate. It has been both disruptive and transformative, scary yet hopeful, stultifying yet revelatory. But now that my wife and I are vaccinated, we are looking forward to hopefully enjoying some semi-normalcy in the hopefully not-too-distant future.
The pandemic and the quarantines have helped guide and inspire me to make some changes, however, beginning with this: starting next fall, I will be studying for my Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy Counseling at California State University East Bay. After I finished my PhD, I swore up and down that I was done with graduate school. A terminal degree is a terminal degree, after all. But I also told myself that if I ever did decide to go back to school, it would be to get a Masters in Counseling. That way I could maximize my opportunities in higher education administration, earn a degree that immediately qualifies me for a wide range of other jobs, and perhaps one day open my own private practice.
I promised myself (and my family) that if I were to get another gradate degree, the program would have to be nearby, convenient for working adults, affordable, and well-established. CSU East Bay checks all the boxes. It isn’t exactly down the street, but with classes meeting only two days a week I can commute via Amtrak and get some work done on the train. The program itself is well-regarded, so I feel like my cohort and I are in good hands going into the fall. And it is affordable, which means . . . no student loans! But even if I did have to take some out, the degree itself would cost considerably less than the new Subaru Forester I bought a few years (and have since paid off).
Regardless of the program’s good fit, I realize it is still a big leap. Yet it makes sense. On the one hand, although I was in no rush to do this before the Pandemic, the switch to online teaching forced me to reevaluate my career trajectory. For instance, what I missed the most about teaching in a traditional setting was the impromptu, one-on-one meetings I often had with students who wanted to talk about school, history, and whatever else. Moreover, I had the creeping feeling that my teaching load in the future will continue to be, one way or another, increasingly virtual. While I am reasonably well-versed in online teaching (I’ve been teaching online for years), I am happier in a classroom. History is a narrative art, and I prefer telling my stories in person. Finally, I do not want to spend the rest of my professional career teaching courses as an adjunct. Like many other contingent faculty over the past year, I’ve come to terms with the stark realities of the tenure-track job market and the demands of tenure-line labor. Not only is it exceedingly unlikely that I will get a tenure line job, but it is even less likely that I will get one in a place that I like more than where we are in Northern California, or that I would come to enjoy working 60 hours a week for not much more money in exchange for job security. If I’m stagnating as an adjunct and no longer interested in finding a tenure-line position, then I need to reconsider my path.
On the other hand, I am genuinely excited about becoming a therapist. I’ve always wanted to hang my shingle someplace and be my own boss. I’ve always wanted to have a career in which I am able to help people, but with more impact and immediacy than what I have as an instructor. And I’ve always believed that I do a better job of helping people find their best versions of themselves than of constantly fighting the worst versions of people. That might be a controversial declaration these days, given our nation’s deep cultural, racial, economic, and political divides, but I know where my strengths lie. As a therapist and as a member of my community, I believe I can make a tangible difference helping people becoming more accepting of themselves, and therefore by extension helping them become more accepting of others.
Since it’s Memorial Day weekend, it’s also a good time to mention that one of the populations I’m most interested in working with is veterans. We have a lot of veterans in my community, many of whom do not seek treatment for one reason or another for PTSD, depression, and other issues. I’ve posted on this blog before about Give an Hour, an organization that gives veterans, disaster victims, and other at-risk persons with free counseling while simultaneously destigmatizing mental illness in the community. I’ve been happy to donate to this organization and write about it here, but I want to play a more active role in this important effort. Unlike my grandpa, dad, and brother, I never served in the military, but I hope that by doing this I will be able to offer a different kind of service to my community and country.
As I prepare to go back to school (again!) and start my 40s as a college student, I hesitate to frame this next step as a decision to “leave academia.” Like so many other contingent faculty across the country who have already left or who are in the process of leaving academia, I am wary of spending the rest of my career teaching without a true professional home, or teaching for less money and nearly no security compared to my colleagues who have the same credentials I do. However, I still do want to teach, albeit less. I want to be able to teach because I decide to teach a class or two, not because I have to teach four or five.
I also want to continue to write and create. I loved writing my first book, I am enjoying the process of writing the second one even more, and I eventually want to write enough books of my own to fill a small satchel bag. Again, though, I want to want to write. I don’t want to have to write, if that makes any sense. And if I could make those things that I like—big writing projects, small teaching loads—orbit around a new professional home, my private practice, well . . . then I’d be living the dream. In any case, it will be interesting to see how my new professional path informs my historical scholarship. Considering that I’ve already been writing quite a bit about paranoia (e.g., vigilante responses to horse thieves, collective freak-outs over prophecized Midwestern earthquakes, etc), I believe my new intellectual curiosities will remap, rather than erase, my preexisting ones in novel and hopefully interesting ways.
More to come in this space, both with respect to my research/writing and to other things happening in my world. But for now, thank you all for coming here and for reading my little blog, and take care of yourselves!
Today is the 79th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. However, for many of us our minds are elsewhere this week as COVID continues to ravage the nation.
In fact, statistically we are well past the point where each day represents a larger death toll than that of some of the deadliest days of American history, including Pearl Harbor:
It’s not just Pearl Harbor, either. On December 2nd, more Americans died of COVID than from enemy fire during the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944. At least 53 days have been deadlier than April 15th, 1912, on which morning the Titanic sank. And if current trends continue, the IHME projects that the United States will hit 2,971 deaths on January 13, 2021, which would make it deadlier than any single day during the Civil War, with the exception of the Battle of Antietam.
While these numbers are accurate and striking, they need to be properly contextualized. When my grandpa woke up on the morning of December 7th, 1941, neither he nor anyone else under the Stars and Stripes knew that a war was going to break out before lunchtime. No one on the USS Arizona could have guessed that their ship would explode within a couple hours, bathing hundreds aboard in burning fuel and showering them with white hot shards of metal. None of the other American ships or planes or sailors or soldiers had that quiet Sunday circled on their calendars in bold red ink as a day that would live forever in infamy.
Meanwhile, thousands will die today, thousands more will die tomorrow, and thousands more the next day, and so on, and so on, and probably through Christmas. In all probability, the next few months will make clear that our annus horribilis did not begin on January 1st, 2020, but on St. Patrick’s Day. By the time we slice into our corned beef this coming spring, half a million Americans may be dead.
To be sure, no one, not even the most stubborn anti-maskers or the most oblivious and aggressive huggers, deserves to die from this awful disease. But it is certain that no one woke up this morning without having had the opportunity to learn about and understand the risks associated with contracting COVID. Many people, especially front-line health care workers, emergency responders, and even fast food and grocery workers, have little choice over whether or not they will contract it because their jobs put them into regular contact with those who already have it. For the rest of us, however, we knew what was coming, even if we did not want to acknowledge the coming tsunami of sickness. Imagine if FDR had know about the Japanese sneak attack all along (and to be clear, no, he did not), from the planning meetings that summer to the Task Force’s launch on November 26th. Would we have ever forgiven him for sitting idly by in the White House, thinking that sooner or later a stray sub or destroyer would happen upon the convoy and scare it away, like a spider retreating through a crack in the wall? Probably not.
But it’s a moot point. FDR did not see the attack coming, and while a few people in the War Department had their suspicions, the sailors, soldiers, and Marines in Hawaii were none the wiser. And even if they knew – some, like grandpa, suspected that a war was going to start soon, but assumed that both sides would have the common courtesy to declare it first – then what was their alternative? Should they desert and hide out someplace? Sleep with a gun under their pillow? Spend all their nights off-ship and on land? Not even that was a guarantee for safety – while most of the USS Arizona’s survivors spent the previous night in town or in the barracks on Ford Island, both men from the Chew who died had slept elsewhere and were caught in a bomb blast while trying to put out fires aboard the USS Pennsylvania. The common denominator for most of those who were caught by surprise that morning was that they chose to be there. While they did not sign their enlistment papers with the foreknowledge of this attack, they also knew that to some extent they did not know what they were signing up for, so to speak. Their oaths and their duty kept them where they least needed to be when the war broke out.
Another thought comes to mind when I reflect on another deadly day in American history that has been frequently invoked in comparison with the daily COVID death tolls: September 11th. When I compared 9/11 to Pearl Harbor over a year ago, I argued that Americans more effectively (if not more equitably) processed their anger following the latter than they did after the former, and that as a result September 11th has festered like an open wound over the past two decades. Yet the most obvious trait that the two events have in common is also the most powerful: both days delivered nothing less than a sudden, profound, and existential shock to the American people that resulted in a wave of patriotic fervor and a newfound appreciation for the fact that no nation is immune to exogenous violence. While one could argue that both events represented the inevitable culmination of American diplomatic and military interventions elsewhere in the world, Americans writ large did not spend a great deal of time worrying about those policies or their repercussions in either case. As I argued last year, shock value does not merely characterize an event. It is foundational to understanding that event’s legacy and memory in history. After all, the JFK Assassination was also a shocking, transformative event whose effects continue to ripple into the present, but if judged by its death toll alone it would barely make the front page in many American newspapers in 1963, or even today.
COVID, on the other hand, is no longer shocking. It is more like a bad roommate than a late-night burglar: its presence does not come as a surprise. Instead, it malevolently leeches away our energy, health, and happiness, and makes us aware of its presence even when we are thinking about other things. COVID is simply exhausting. It is wearing away at us, and even though a vaccine may only be weeks away, each day until that happens is a challenging slog.
One of the benefits of writing is that it helps us work though what we are thinking. And as I look back on what I’ve written so far, it seems like what began as a post asking readers not to underestimate the Pearl Harbor attack with respect to daily death tolls is turning into something else: a plea to understand what we are going through now on its own terms. On the one hand, Pearl Harbor was a bad day in American history. An event that mostly occurred within the span of a couple of hours cast a long, dark shadow over the following years and decades. The death toll that day was certainly and inarguably tragic, but the costs were much higher. Tens of thousands of others were injured or scarred in less obvious ways, and countless Americans back home waited weeks with stones in their stomachs waiting for news about their loved ones. As for my grandfather, who could not simply unsee the Arizona exploding a few hundred yards away, memories of the attack stalked him for the rest of his life. This multifaceted and terrible toll transcends and multiplies exponentially the sorrowful calculus baked into that four-digit number we see in the above tweet.
On the other hand, the same logic applies to the drumbeat of COVID daily deaths we see in the newspapers. Too many Americans today continue to dismiss those numbers, playing fast and loose with peoples’ lives and their true impact on those around them by speciously seizing on arbitrary and misleading statistics, like the fact that it “only” kills 1% of infected victims, or that on most days heart disease kills more people. How inured are we to sickness and premature death to not empathize with the millions of people in our own country who not only grieve lost loved ones, but who in most cases did not get to say goodbye, or even bury them? What about the millions of others who recovered, but who are now facing the debilitating downstream effects of their COVID fight? How much shorter will their lives be as a result?
Yet because COVID is no longer a shock comparable to that of an enemy bombing or a terrorist attack or a mall shooting, its effects are muted in real time, even as our loved ones – or as we ourselves – suddenly join the ranks of the infected. Just today I learned that one of my students has it and one of my ex-girlfriends may have it, just as half of the State of California goes on stay-at-home lockdown as of early this morning. But apart from the hundreds of thousands who died and the millions more who suffer from its effects, there are the countless other downstream effects: businesses closed, weddings and graduations cancelled, children robbed of a year of their lives . . . it is impossible to quantify them.
So, on this Pearl Harbor anniversary day . . . don’t just remember the victims. Think about the fact that it is now 79 years later, and that we are still remembering the day itself. Think beyond the cumulative toll of all the lives lost that day . . . why was that event itself seared so terribly into our collective memory? And why are so many Americans today so oblivious to the gargantuan tragedy – not just the daily death counts, but *waves arms wildly in all directions* all of this – unfolding around us?
COVID does not make the Pearl Harbor attack any less tragic by comparison, nor is our collective remembrance of that day somehow unjustified if literally more people die today from COVID than from the actual event we are remembering. But both events are historically massive, albeit for different reasons: one killed a few and shocked many, while the other shocked few but killed a great many. Both count as transformative tragedies, yet only one was immediately and universally recognizable for its terribleness. Hopefully, as we reflect on the horrors of Pearl Harbor for the 79th year, more of us will begin to recognize, anticipate, and mourn the horrors of the other.
Thirty years ago, on December 2nd, 1990, a massive earthquake was supposed to strike the New Madrid Fault in southeastern Missouri. Iben Browning, a climatologist-turned-disaster prophet who some believed had successfully predicted the Loma Prieta Earthquake the previous year, stated that there was a 50% chance of a major earthquake hitting that day. Soon, David Steward, a seismologist at Southeast Missouri State University, told the press that the prediction needed to be taken seriously, and before long many in the media took his advice. When the sun dawned across the glimmering Mississippi and over the town of New Madrid on the morning of December 2nd, dozens of satellite trucks and hundreds of reporters and photographers stood around in the small community, waiting for the world to end.
I remember these events well. I was nine years old at the time, and I remember my parents dismissing the prediction while many of the other kids and parents in my suburban St. Louis community anxiously fretted and, in some cases, made plans to stay home from work or school that day. The school bus that morning was largely empty, I recall, and several kids I expected to see get on the bus at various stops were not present when we arrived.
For me, the prediction and the hysteria it caused was formative: it made me interested in how the public responds to imaginary events, and in some ways I think that experience later helped shape the way I write about horse thieves in Never Caught Twice. More directly, it inspired me to create a documentary based on the subject. We’ve conducted a handful of interviews thus far, and have produced a teaser video for the project:
For those of you who have been following or involved in this project . . . it is still happening! COVID-19 has slowed – actually, frozen – our fundraising efforts, and both Mario and I have been busy with competing projects this past year. We are hopeful that 2021 will be a safer year for the kind of in-person, less-socially distanced work that documentary production often requires. In the meantime, if you wish to support our work, you can follow our Facebook page, and if you have any stories you’d like to share about that day thirty years ago please Contact Me and tell me about it!
The ironic thing about COVID’s impact on our production schedule, however, is that in many ways I believe this film would have been a warning against the kind of conspiratorial, unobjective thinking that has led to the pandemic becoming so severe in the first place. The year 1990 offers some critical and timely lessons in how to respond to “fake news,” as it were, and perhaps that term would be a particularly apt way to describe the overall panic surrounding Iben Browning’s infamous prediction.
Lesson Number 1: Don’t just listen to what one scientist says. Listen to what most scientists say. If you are not a scientist yourself, you should defer to the consensus.
A few months before the predicted earthquake along the New Madrid Fault was to occur, NBC aired a prime time, made-for-TV disaster film entitled The Big One, starring Joanna Kerns (the mom on Growing Pains). In it, Kearns plays a seismologist whose warnings about a coming quake are all but ignored.
A similar trope persists in other disaster movies: some lone scientist predicts disaster, no one takes them seriously, and then a bigger-than-they-feared disaster suddenly strikes.
While it may be a stretch to say that movies like The Big One have sewn doubt among the American public about what the consensus of scientific experts has to say about a topic – just look at the role social media has played in generating mistrust towards vaccinations – it is emblematic of the larger problem.
Most people are not scientists, and even scientists are usually limited to being an expert in one or maybe two fields. This means that the rest of us are reliant on what the community of experts says. In 1990, social media did not exist and web browsing was in its infancy, but the hysteria surrounding Browning’s prediction provides a case study in how it only takes a couple of trusted “authorities” on a subject (Stewart and Browning) to undermine the cacophony of thousands of other scientists stating the opposite.
Fast forward to 2020, when Dr. Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist, became President Trump’s primary advisor on the COVID-19 response. Although not a trained epidemiologist, his pronouncements on the inefficacy of mask-wearing undermined the efforts of countless doctors and scientists to encourage broad use of facial masks and social distancing.
Lesson Number 2: If it bleeds, it leads. News organizations are bound by ethical conventions to report the truth, but they are still the gatekeepers of content. And those content decisions are not always made in the public’s best interest.
One of the things we’ve discovered with our documentary research is how reckless some media organizations were when covering this story. They would continually quote either Browning or Stewart, followed by one or two scientists peaching caution, and then conclude that the matter was unsettled. This phenomenon is called “false equivalence.” It happens when the opinion shared by a small but vocal minority of an expert community is treated with the same amount of deference as the much larger scientific consensus.
Of course, there is nothing new about this. Check out the segment from FOX 2 St. Louis below, which concludes that “St. Louis could be severely damaged [while] Memphis could be wiped out” in the event that a major earthquake strikes. The tone throughout is slightly ominous. What is interesting, however, is that most of the images used in the segment come from Northwestern geology professor Seth Stein’s book Disaster Deferred, in which his principal thesis is that the fears of a New Madrid earthquake are actually overstated and present little reason for residents of the region to worry.
More recently, news organizations have spent a great deal of time and attention covering small anti-mask protests across the nation, while devoting comparatively fewer resources to covering the 270,000 Americans who died of COVID since March, the 86,000 patients currently hospitalized with it, and the countless physicians and nurses who care for them.
Lesson Number 3: The scariest threats are often not the worst, and the worst threats are often not the scariest.
There is no doubt that a major earthquake along the New Madrid Fault would be devastating to the region. Two major metropolitan areas, St. Louis and Memphis, would be directly in its crosshairs, and if reports from the 1811 and 1812 Earthquakes are any indication, then a repeat event on the fault would do a lot more than collapse chimneys in Cincinnati and ring church bells in Boston.
However, as someone who not only grew up in the New Madrid Seismic Zone, but who then spent nine years living in Los Angeles (including 7 years in an apartment that sat literally 100 feet from an active, if minor, fault line), I don’t believe that the risk of an earthquake should prevent me or anyone else from living someplace. If an earthquake along an established fault is going to happen, it’s going to happen. The only thing I can really do about that is prepare: make an emergency supply kit, map out a safety plan for me and my family, and take proactive steps to ensure that furniture is affixed to wall and small objects won’t fall on me or anyone else in my household.
Yet the New Madrid earthquake prediction inspired many people to act more rashly in response. As mentioned above, many folks stayed home from work or school. A small number even left the region, according to sociologist John Farley in Earthquake Fears, Predictions, and preparations in Mid-America. Just as the hype over the prediction drew dozens of media organizations to New Madrid, the same hysteria caused others to run for their lives.
Was their response warranted in retrospect? Certainly not. But it is equally true that St. Louisans have also underestimated other dangers. Just two and a half years later, the Great Flood of 1993 killed dozens across the region and displaced thousands. Later, in 2011, a tornado struck Joplin, Missouri, killing a staggering 161 people and shocking a region that had long treated tornado warnings with a mix of humor, annoyance, and complacency. More recently, as of this writing, COVID has killed at least 4,183 Missourians, including over 1,000 in St. Louis County. While that might seem like a drop in the statistical bucket, St. Louis County has 19 municipalities with populations of 1,000 people or less. Imagine an entire neighborhood just disappearing.
Yet COVID, unlike earthquakes, does not inspire the same kind of dread in most people, especially after nine months of living through a global pandemic. We are all tired and anxious to get back to our routines, to reunite with family and friends, to go to bars and concerts and restaurants again, to travel and take cruises and visit beaches and take so many other things for granted again. And last week, many Americans let their guard down for a day and traveled to see loved ones for Thanksgiving.
My intent here is not to shame people for their decisions this holiday season. This is hard on all of us, and as someone who feels a special urgency at the moment to go and see his family in St. Louis for the holidays, I understand as well as most the cost-benefit analysis involved. But there’s a broader point here that is worth underscoring: 30 years ago, on December 3rd, everyone knew the danger had passed. Kids went back to school, parents went back to work, and journalists found something new to write about after the earth remained still.
We don’t have anything like that with COVID. There won’t be a single day when we all wake up to realize together and at once that the danger has passed. But until then, there will be many dangerous days ahead. And the Mississippi River, with its cold, gray waters and short, rippling waves, will continue to plow quietly southward towards the Gulf, oblivious to the silent, invisible virus that surrounds it on all sides.
I recently had the honor and privilege of talking about Grandpa’s Letters with Dr. Samantha Cutrara on her Imagining a New We video series. During the show we chatted about Veteran’s Day (or Remembrance Day in Canada), the advantages of using family letters in a history classroom, and the joys of writing.
In addition to discussing the letters, I also mentioned a few additional sources that I use to add context and detail to Grandpa’s Naval career. Unlike the letters, which are not only a treasure trove but a treasure in their own right, many people know that a parent, grandparent, or great-grandparent served in World War II, but they have few documents or heirlooms to reveal more. This is particularly true for servicemen who died or went missing in action, and for countless others whose letters, journals, or other artifacts were lost, destroyed, or discarded for one reason or another. Where would these people start their historical journey of learning more about a loved one in the service if that loved one left little evidence of their service behind?
Well, consider this a down payment on what I hope will become a separate chapter in my book. Here are explanations and links to (most) of the sources I mentioned in the video, along with some information on where to get them and how to use them. Note that while these are Navy sources, other branches of the service were similarly dedicated to ample and redundant record-keeping (my horse stealing book, in fact, relies heavily on Army sources).
Personnel records are the most fundamental source to acquire in your journey. Get these first. They contain essential documents for each service member, including enlistment paperwork and exams, orders, various commendations and citations, and discharge papers. Most if not all vital data points can be found here.
Right now these papers are hard to get. The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis contains virtually all of these files, and under ordinary circumstances researchers have the option of either making arrangements with the NPRC directly and visiting the site in person to review requested documents, or they can order a digital scan of the file. However, due to COVID the facility shut down during the spring and summer, and is only now beginning a phased reopening process. There will likely be a substantial backlog of requests once it is fully reopen, so I would personally wait (and, incidentally, I will wait because I still have additional requests of my own) until the COVID crisis has passed to make an inquiry.
Here’s a screenshot of one of the pages from Grandpa’s file. Please note that while I have digitized the entire thing, I will not post it anywhere. This is because these files contain a lot of sensitive and personal data, up to and including physical examination reports. Also bear in mind that I am photo-scanning this manually. Since most of it is bound together I am holding it open with one hand (very gingerly, so as not to damage it), while photographing it with the other. It doesn’t produce publishable files, but it gets the job done (pro-tip: bring a tripod, plus extra batteries and a larger-than-you-need memory card).
One thing to note: the term of service for the requested person needs to have ended before 1957, or else federal privacy laws prohibit accessing the record without additional permissions and documentations.
Personnel records are fantastic sources for filling out your loved one’s biography, but what about their ship (if they were in the Navy)? Ship records are fantastic for understanding the setting, as well as whatever actions in which your loved one was involved. When combined with personnel records, any existing oral or written reminiscences from the crew, and secondary sources, you can get an excellent idea of exactly what transpired on and around the ship.
Deck logs are probably the most data rich source of information about ships, their crews, and almost every other conceivable variable. You can track things like temperature and wind speed, the ship’s geographic location throughout the day, and even the amount of ice cream consumed aboard. For instance, check out this page from the Chew’s deck log on December 7th, 1941:
This page tells us a story: the Chew’s Sunday morning started out like any other, with the ship taking aboard ten gallons of milk and 4 1/2 gallons of ice cream. But then at 7:57am everything changed, and suddenly the crew found itself in the middle of a war. Deck logs contain narratives of all the major stuff happening on board, as well as much of the minutia. They also contain information about the weather, the location, and other details. If you want to picture what it felt like in Pearl Harbor immediately before the attack started, check out the following table in the Chew’s deck log:
For instance, the barometric pressure hovered just above 30 inches (Hg) for most of the morning . . . until 8am, that is, when it was broken by gunfire.
These records can be found at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. Learning how to request, access, use, and photograph takes a little bit of time, so if you go be ready to give yourself a few hours to learn the ropes and request the documents (and be careful not to schedule a plane trip immediately after working hours, like I did back in January), plus a few more hours to review and possibly photograph them for future use. If you cannot make the trip yourself, you can hire a freelance researcher to request and photograph the files for you. It will cost a little money, of course, but if you are only requesting a few things it is a lot cheaper to do this than to travel to Maryland for two or three nights. Also, because of COVID and the NARA closures these folks are hurting right now . . . they can use your business!
Like the deck logs, the war diaries can be found at the NARA facility in College Park, Maryland. Unlike the deck logs, war diaries are much shorter, more compact documents that communicate a brief day to day log of where a ship has been and what it did on any given day. They contain a lot less information overall, but they also contain just enough. If you just want information on where a ship was and what it was doing, ask for the war diaries. If you want as much information as possible, use the war diary for context and the deck log for everything else.
Here’s a page from the USS Mink’s war diary from October 1944. Notice how the ship relates a series of geographic coordinates for several days, and then finds itself in action on October 24th:
The Mink was part of a task force that set sail for the Philippines. Once it got there it would play a role in the largest naval battle in human history: the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
One good thing about the war diaries is that many, if not most of them are available online. In fact, the above-cited war diary for the Mink (10/1 – 10/31 1944) can be found here: https://catalog.archives.gov/id/78665385
It might take a while to figure out what you want and where it is located, but once you spend a little time noodling around with it you will find what you need. Just be patient: NARA has literally millions of records, so if it feels like you are looking for a needle in a haystack, it is because you are! But NARA also employs a lot of people whose jobs revolve around helping the public find what they need, so be sure to ask for help if you need it.
The last type of document I mentioned is the action report, which is an official report following any kind of naval engagement. Action reports flush out many of the details that are missing from war diaries, but are specific to the engagements themselves. They chronicle what guns were used, how much ammunition was expended, what they were targeting, etc. You could write action sequences based on these reports. Here is an excerpt from one from the Mink in January 1945, which related what occurred when a kamikaze attack targeted the Mink’s convoy while en route to Lingayen Gulf:
The action reports are physically long and thus difficult to present digitally, but this snapshot gives you a sense of how detailed they are. If you want to see the whole thing, you can see it online. Like the war diaries, many (though not all) action reports have been digitized by NARA and can be found on their website. Here’s the link to the one above: https://catalog.archives.gov/id/139885506
I was very lucky to inherit so many letters from my Grandpa. Not only did those letters survive intact and in great (i.e., readable) shape, but Grandpa was an intelligent commentator and a lucid writer. It’s rare to find a correspondence trove in which the letters appear with great frequency, regularity, over a long period of time, with readable writing, and with so many things to say. My Grandpa might not have realized it, but he had the soul of a historian.
That being said, World War II – and modern wars in general – are richly detailed affairs, with a lot of granular and unit-level reporting. Most veterans have detailed files, even if they are not yet publicly available, and for most of them you can get information on where and how they served, what they saw, and where they fit into the overall scheme of things. In other words, you don’t need a box full of letters to find a lot of this stuff out . . . just a bit of shoe leather and some resourceful online searching will get you there. Hopefully for those of you with WWII American Navy veterans in your family, the above resources will help you find more information.
And as I state in the interview, World War II is rapidly disappearing from living memory. Of the 16 million men and women who served in the war, only about 325,000 are still alive today. If you know one of them, please reach out to them and ask if they are willing to share their story with you. They might not, and that is OK, but if they do then all you need is a smart phone with a recording app. For more information on conducting oral history interviews, check out UCLA’s Center for Oral History page on the subject. I trained there while in grad school, and they know what they are doing.
A couple of other things: I’ve heard from family members of a few of Elmer’s shipmates on the Chew and the Mink. If someone you loved was on either of these ships during the war, please feel free to reach out to me on my Contact page! I would love to talk to you sometime and, if you’d like, interview you for my book project. Although my grandpa’s story is at the center of this narrative, I want to also use the opportunity to talk about the other men who served on these ships. Neither the Chew (a destroyer) nor the Mink (a Liberty Ship tanker) are frequently mentioned in the annals of World War II Naval history, yet the war would not have been won without their efforts and sacrifices, nor those of thousands of other ships that have not yet had movies made about them.
Also, thanks again to Dr. Samantha Cutrara for inviting me onto her show to talk about my project. Please check out her YouTube channel for more interviews with scholars, teachers, artists, and others across both Canada and the United States.
Finally, today is Veteran’s Day here in the United States and Remembrance Day in Canada. It is November 11th in both countries because 102 years ago, on November 11, 1918, the Allied and Central Powers agreed to an Armistice which ended World War I. In the United States, Woodrow Wilson proclaimed that November 11, 1919 would “be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations” every year on that date henceforth. So while it is entirely appropriate and highly encouraged to thank the millions of Americans today who have given their service to our country, do not forget that we share these burdens with Canada, the United Kingdom, France, and other allies over the past century and more whose own veterans have fought alongside Americans for the free peoples of the world.
And if you are in a giving mood and would like to more than just saying “thank you” to veterans on social media, consider giving some money to a charity that serves veterans and their families. There are many charities out there that do this, but my favorite is Give an Hour. It raises money for mental health counseling and therapy for veterans, as well as victims of disasters. Help make this vital care available to the people who need it while destigmatizing mental health care by making a gift today: https://giveanhour.org
OK . . . that’s all. Thanks for reading all the way to the end! I’m going to take a week or two off, then I will post a couple of stories about Grandpa’s time in the Philippines, including the story of how he met my great Uncle Danny . . . in Manila. I’m going to shoot for posting that one on Thanksgiving.
I delivered this paper on October 17, 2020 at the online Western History Association Conference. Parts of it were taken from my Marquette University MA Thesis, which is entitled “In the Name of the Law: The Pine Bluff Detective Association and the Anti-Horse Thief Movement, 1885-1916” (2005).
This conference paper brings my research on extralegal responses to horse stealing full circle: it started with anti-horse thief associations in Wisconsin, and culminated most recently in my book, Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890. I don’t know if or when I will continue working on this subject (I have some ideas), but for now this feels like a good way to put a pin in it.
In the popular mind, vigilantism is most often associated with the frontier. One might think of Montana and California, where angry lynch mobs often wielded the hangman’s noose and where the lines between civil and legal authority were visibly blurred. Even though vigilante groups have appeared throughout the United States, some of the most spectacular – and memorable – movements have associated vigilantism with the San Francisco Committee of 1856, the Montana vigilant societies in 1864, and the Nebraska Niobrara during the 1880s. However, throughout the mid to late-nineteenth century, the vast majority of vigilante organizations never tied a noose or fired a shot. These groups, known as anti-horse thief associations, could be found throughout the Midwest, from Ohio all the way to eastern Nebraska. But for some reason these organizations, much like the rain, seemed to dry up at the 100th Meridian.
In my book, Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890, I discuss the role that vigilantism played in local efforts to mitigate horse theft. I argue that while there was relatively little vigilante activity directed against horse thieves in the area, homesteaders, small ranchers, and newspaper editors often invoked the threat of lynching as “the old system of justice” for dealing with thieves. They did this because a dearth of law enforcement, the sheer financial and utilitarian value of horses, and the almost non-existent borrowing market for acquiring new ones rendered them vulnerable to theft. Horse thieves became a bogeyman for all their problems as a result, and by the time people started stealing cars instead the horse thief figure had already entered Western mythology as a villain who, in the words of Nellie Snyder Yost, was “never caught twice.”
In this context, I wondered about the absence of anti-horse thief societies from Western Nebraska. They seemed ubiquitous farther east, and the loss of a horse was magnified on the Plains by the sod, aridity, long travel distances, and lack of cash, so why aren’t there more in that region? To answer this question, look to the Pine Bluff Detective Association, which was an anti-horse thief association based in Pine Bluff, Wisconsin.
Pine Bluff was (and remains) a small hamlet about ten miles west of Madison. It was, in many ways, an idyllic, tranquil farm community. Industrious farmers made up the majority of the population and the town itself had a relatively low crime rate among its own citizenry. These conditions, however, did not guarantee citizens’ safety. For one, gangs of criminals were notorious for stealing horses in one community and then bringing them to another state for sale. Their actions precipitated an endless series of crime waves throughout the country that resulted in rising tensions among potential victims. Horse stealing was particularly feared – horses were essentially the most valuable pieces of property that farmers owned, with the exception of their house and land, and the horse market was so large and diverse that, depending on the time and place of the sale, thieves could usually sell their stolen goods for a high price. Fortunately for horse thieves, the high number of horses in agricultural areas such as Pine Bluff offered a steady supply.
In the spring of 1885, several horses were stolen in Middleton, a village between Pine Bluff and Madison. A series of thefts elsewhere in the area prompted Sheriff William Pierstorff to call for local communities to “organize for their own protection” in May. Apparently, the call was heeded. As panic began to grow within the farming communities of Dane County, the citizens of Pine Bluff and the surrounding villages united in June to form an anti-horse thief society, the Pine Bluff Detective Association. Anti-horse thief societies were generally nonviolent organizations that attempted to protect members’ property by facilitating local law enforcement and creating a “neighborhood watch” of sorts. “The people have become excited over the matter,” wrote William Dunn, the Pine Bluff correspondent for the Madison Democrat who would eventually become a member himself. He predicted, “Societies will be formed in nearly every town in this part of the county.” He also warned, “Suspicious characters traveling about will be roughly handled.” Although nobody from Pine Bluff seemed to have been directly affected by the outbreak of horse thefts, locals were already willing to mobilize and intimidate “suspicious characters” with vague threats.
What is more surprising is that these organizations were a common occurrence throughout the nation, especially the Midwest. Richard Maxwell Brown has hypothesized that hundreds of thousands of men and women were members of these societies during the latter half of the nineteenth century in an area stretching from Texas to the Great Lakes.
Before proceeding with the discussion of the P.B.D.A., however, it would be helpful to further frame it within the context of vigilantism. Consideration should be given to Wisconsin during the late nineteenth-century – was it a hotbed of vigilantism or a relatively quiet area? Although far from quiet, it was generally stable. Initially settled in the 1830s and granted statehood in 1848, Wisconsin had long ceased to be a frontier by 1880. In fact, in Brown’s lengthy catalog of the hundreds of known vigilante movements that have occurred throughout the United States, only one from Wisconsin made the list: the La Crosse Vigilance Committee of 1857, a short-lived organization created by the local population to help control a prostitution ring and other vices. Ultimately, an angry mob ended up burning down a local bordello. However, on the whole, Wisconsinites only lynched six men between 1882 and 1968, all of whom were white.
Despite these occurrences there was a much larger trend towards nonviolent, supplemental law enforcement in Wisconsin during the 1880s. Not only were horses extraordinarily valuable, but police were not yet technologically or institutionally able to proactively protect private property or investigate theft with forensic methods. This put the onus of private property protection on the private parties themselves. Between 1880 and 1890, anti-horse thief societies were founded in Waukesha (1881), Fulton (1884), Dayton (1884), Beloit (1887), Racine (1889), and Rock County (1890). Meanwhile, detective associations were founded in Dodge County (1881), Whitewater (1885), Palmyra (1888), and Ashland (1889). The Whitewater and Beloit societies had memberships numbering nearly 200, and the Ashland society published a polite, if stern, letter for a local murder suspect to leave the county. These, in fact, were only the larger societies and the ones that managed to file articles of incorporation, a procedure which actually gave these organizations the right to exercise constabulary powers and make arrests.
For the PBDA, historians can review its constitution and meeting record book at the Wisconsin State Historical Society. Aside from the standard executive committee – president, vice president, secretary and treasurer – it also allowed for the creation of a vigilance committee. This was the enforcement arm of the organization, and could be called upon in an emergency to assemble and hunt for any suspected thieves. However, the size of the organization probably allowed a great deal of informality among the members. If there was a situation, it was probably expected that most members would come to the aid of the victim and search for the thieves. At any rate, the vigilance committee and the president were responsible for the conduct of any searches. In 1887, a measure was passed allowing officers to draw $2 a day for expenses when conducting a search.
The members themselves reflected the diversity of the community’s social and economic strata. The P.B.D.A.’s first president, James Quigley, was born in Ireland in 1846. He settled in Springfield as a young man and learned the carpenter trade. His family, the Quigleys, were known at the Fourth of July picnic games for their brawn, which may or may not have helped James Quigley obtain his office as the leader of a vigilante group. He owned a farm of about 200 acres and had a wife with 2 children. However, he died in 1890 of appendicitis and was succeeded by James Bonner in 1891. Matt Anderson was perhaps the most prominent man to join the society. He served as a state assemblyman in 1871 and was a state senator from 1879- 1883. He owned a substantial dairy farm and, as mentioned above, retired fairly wealthy. Another prominent member was the Rev. Joseph Hausner, the pastor at St. Mary’s from 1905 until 1917. The latest in a long line of German priests dating back to the first mass at Johann Kalscheur’s home in 1852, Hausner continued to help hold his ethnically divided parish together. William Dunn had very positive things to say about him: “He was a good preacher . . . I can never forget his kindly Christian character and his exemplary life as a priest.” Like his predecessors, Hausner continued to help promote good relations in the community by refusing to condemn Protestantism, and he helped build a $5,000 parochial school during his first few years in the parish.
It is interesting that Hausner joined the P.B.D.A., especially since he did not hold property in the area or operate a farm. However, it is conceivable that he did so to promote crime awareness or facilitate, perhaps even join, what was at time a social organization. By promoting crime awareness, it is clear that his presence further distanced the organization from violence. Perhaps more importantly, priests in small villages such as Pine Bluff were active in building good community relations and promoting organizations that enabled farmers to get together with one another and socialize.
The most important source of information about the members comes from William Dunn, who wrote a memoir of his life in Pine Bluff. At 80, Dunn remembered a great deal about his past. Curiously, though, he mentions nothing of the P.B.D.A., despite describing the work of local pickpockets on three different occasions. Why wouldn’t he – or anyone else – have any reason not to mention or at least remember such a group, especially since it was clear that they were not a secret society? It is conceivable that it simply was not a big deal in the minds of the members.
This hypothesis is especially interesting in light of the apparent inactivity of the organization. There is no record of the P.B.D.A. doing anything other than issuing a couple of $25 rewards in two separate years. For one thing, dairy farmers were exceedingly busy people. Add on the burdens of having a family, participating in church, and having other social, civic, and recreational preoccupations, one may ask just where the dairy farmers would have found the time to make patrols and hunt down criminals. The annual meetings did not meet their quota during certain years. This possible lack of interest may be related to the fact that there is no known evidence of any manhunts or captures during the society’s 31-year existence. It seems as though the executive board had little more to do than pass bylaws and call meetings.
This would all be irrelevant if their organization was something more than a sleight of hand trick to make gangs of horse thieves think that the countryside was more mobilized than otherwise thought. That’s what many locals later believed, anyway – according to a reporter who interviewed the P.B.D.A.’s only surviving member in the 1950s: “it is possible that the knowledge of such a body was enough to put the quietus on horse and cattle stealing.” Since horse thieves were well aware of what vigilance societies were capable of once riled up – note Dunn’s remark that “the people have become excited over the matter” – it would have served the P.B.D.A. well to have only created a caricature of vigilance, if not an actual instrument of such. Their use of rewards for the capture of thieves might have reinforced this system, though it is not known why the two rewards issued by the society were given.
Caricature or not, it lasted for 31 years. Towards the end of that span, it ceased to be useful, although it did amass 67 members by 1916. In the twentieth century, the organization often met at a tavern in Pine Bluff, in a building known for its entertainments as well as its political assemblies. There is not a whole lot to say about the organization between 1890 and 1916, although the seeds of its dissolution were sewn well before the turn of the century. By 1916, most of the founding members were either dead or too old to participate. The need for anti-horse thief societies had passed, as had their founders.
When I first researched the Pine Bluff Detective Association some 15 years ago for my MA, I gave the organization the benefit of the doubt. I was reluctant to accept that the group was more of a social organization than a neighborhood watch. And my research on horse stealing in Western Nebraska bolstered, if anything, the notion that horses were important enough to late-nineteenth century Americans that they felt the need to protect them by any means necessary. But something stands out for me now that did not stand out nearly as conspicuously 15 years ago: Pine Bluff was, by all indications, a stable community. People raised their families there, and now many of their descendants continue to live in the immediate area. Dunn, Quigley, and Anderson were invested in this place. So too was the priest, Hausner, who likely would not have joined an organization whose members intended to murder wrongdoers.
The comparative rarity of lynchings in Wisconsin in some ways justifies the idea that most anti-horse thief societies were non-violent. After all, it makes sense to think that a well-organized and disciplined group of community watchers could successfully reduce crime to a point where it would no longer justify more rash vigilante action. But perhaps it’s actually the opposite: maybe the large number of thriving, longstanding anti-horse thief societies actually led to fewer lynchings. The history of vigilante violence elsewhere in the country seems to suggest this. Southern lynchings were a byproduct of white terrorism, not vigilantism, while farther west the largest vigilante movements occurred in relatively new communities with immature and graft-prone civil institutions. Anti-horse thief societies in this respect may actually act as emotional sponges, places where horse owners could express their fears and organize an active response to a disastrous outcome, like the loss of a horse, that would otherwise lie beyond their ability to act. In other words, rage does not necessarily lead to helplessness, but helplessness can easily lead to rage. Anti-horse thief organizations may have preempted that rage by giving an outlet to that helplessness. They might have even facilitated community organization, thereby promoting stability and peace. The fact that many other anti-horse thief societies were modeled after the Freemasons, with initiation rites and sacred insignia, suggests as much.
More research on these groups as community organizations, rather than as vigilante sleeper cells, is needed. In the meantime, my more recent research on western Nebraska can provide a brief counter-example. In this region, stockman’s associations, rather than anti-horse thief associations, were the primary organizational tool for locals wishing to combat horse and other livestock theft. These organizations were primarily formed and controlled by ranchers who not only excluded but sometimes acted in concert against Homesteaders, farmers, and small-herd owners. The Wyoming Stock Growers Association’s involvement in the Johnson County War is surely the famous and most notorious example, of this. But we see similar machinations within the Northwest Nebraska Stockman’s Association, a smaller, regional cattlemen’s association based in Hyannis. Not only did the organization preclude farmers, but one of its executive members, Perry Yeast, was accused of running a rustling operation in the early 1890s and later convicted of fencing public lands in the early twentieth-century. Local homesteaders, meanwhile, had a much more difficult time in western Nebraska proving their claims and creating economically viable farms than farmers further to the east. Many left within five or ten years. Mari Sandoz’s Old Jules and Willa Cather’s O Pioneers both chronicle the instability of these farming communities on the Great Plains, and a growing historical literature, including David Wishart’s masterful Last Days of the Rainbelt, is deepening our awareness of what can only be described as a failed frontier.
The farmers who persisted did so in spite of these circumstances. And those who did seldom prospered. Communities, rather than building up and out, instead came and went. Civil institutions remained immature. Neighbors who could be relied upon to help in times of crisis might leave at the drop of a hat. Yet the need to protect their animals remained. If anything, the lack of generational wealth and only moderately rising property values magnified the losses farmers incurred whenever their horses were stolen. In this socially dystopian landscape, farmers organizations like the Anti-Horse Thief Association could not thrive. Instead, farmers felt their feels with little support, little help, and few people to whom they could complain at the local tavern.
When we imagine vigilante organizations, we tend to think of the ones with the highest body counts. Yet quantitatively they were in the minority. Most organizations might not have even been organizations at all. They were groups where, in the evening, after the many tasks of the day had been concluded, farmers could sit and commune over their anxieties which never seemed to go away. They could aggressively make plans against actionable threats that jeopardized their lives and communities, like horse thieves, while raging against those threats that – like locusts, drought, bad weather, railroads – only demonstrated their helplessness in the face of unending economic precarity and danger. By turning their helplessness into rage, and then their rage into bonding, they could learn how to explode.
Guess what? Good news: my book is officially published!
If you’re interested in ordering a copy of Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890 (which you completely should) but don’t want to pay $65 for it (which I completely understand), now’s your chance to get it for 50% off!
While you’re there, please check out some of the University of Nebraska Press’s other new releases. As one might imagine, 2020 is a difficult year to promote new publications, which is typically done through in-person activities such as book signings and release parties. As one of the largest and most prestigious academic presses in the country, you’ll no doubt find plenty of great things to read, or perhaps the perfect Christmas gift for someone who already “has everything.” I’ve included links to three of the books I plan on buying myself using the same 50% off coupon code at checkout:
Also: if you are interested in ordering an autographed copy of my book, I can send you a signed hardback, along with a personalized note and a special gift, for $50 USD. That price includes all shipping and handling (I have to order it from the warehouse and then send it on to you) for all orders within the United States or Canada. It’s also cheaper than the current list price for the book. Give the gift of a brand new, autographed horse stealing history book to that person in your life who loves well-crafted historical monographs, Westerns, or the Great Plains in general.
If you are interested in ordering an autographed copy, please go to my Contact page and provide your name, email, and a comment indicating your interest and including any special instructions you have for the autograph, the personalized signature, or anything else, and I will respond as soon as I can.
Anyway . . . I think I’ve run out of things to promote! For now, at least.
In the meantime, have a safe, pleasant, and mildly cool autumn!
Hi folks, I just wanted to post a quick update on the fires up here, since people have been asking us all week about it . . .
First of all, we are OK. We’re tired of all the smoke, and all I want to do is go on a bike ride on a clear morning . . . but we are far from the flames, and for that we are extraordinarily grateful.
Secondly, although we are OK, a lot of people are not. The wildfires have already claimed several lives, and there is no telling what the long-term health effects will be for people in this state who have to work outside every day (e.g., people like my dad before he retired), breathing in toxic air and in some cases ash and burnt bits of grass and pine needles. I don’t get political on here too often, but please understand thatclimate change is real. We are the canary in the gold mine, and most (though certainly not all) of us in the Golden State feel in our bones that these megafires are only going to get bigger and consume more acreage, more towns, and more lives in the future. Although we are sad about the unfolding disaster now, we are even more distressed by what next year will bring, and the year after that.
I don’t have any solutions for this – I’m a historian, after all, and not a climatologist – but I do hope that we will collectively begin to take this more seriously. It is a more serious issue, frankly, than what most people on the left or the right have been obsessing over in recent months and years. This is our number one long-term threat, period. It will affect everyone and everything you and I care about and love, and most often in a negative way. So, I hope that we use this as a reason to begin making decisions, from the grocery store to the car dealership to the ballot box, that mitigate these dangers and buy our civilization the time it needs to engineer the total war response this problem deserves.
I love California. Where else in America can you visit a warm, sun-kissed beach in the morning and then drive to the mountains for some afternoon skiing? But this place that I’ve grown to love and think of as home is in real, existential danger. And if these massive fires don’t ring any alarm bells, then what will?
For now, at least, if you’re able and willing to lend a hand or donate some money to the dozens of communities under the gun right now, here is a great list of resources. Please do what you can. And remember: most of the towns that are most dramatically affected by these fires aren’t the large coastal urban centers, but small towns in outlying areas. Farming and logging communities are particularly prone to fire dangers, and although their work is essential to the American economy, they don’t have a lot of resources to rebuild on their own. Every little bit helps.
Anyway, I’ll jump off the soapbox for now . . . I’ve already written and scheduled Monday’s post on March 1945, and it’s a real doozy, so keep an eye out for that.
In the meantime, thanks as always for taking the time to read whatever I feel like writing on here. I appreciate all of you.
Well, folks, I’m back . . . as in, back on Twitter. You can follow me at @luckettdr. I’m not going to sweat out my follower count too much – I like being able to opine freely, and lately that has been on politics – but I am trying to make an effort to bring more research-relevant content to my timeline. For my purposes, that means searching for tweets about horse stealing.
And after a couple of days doing just that I realized pretty quickly that there is a gaping hole in my upcoming book, Never Caught Twice: Horse Stealing in Western Nebraska, 1850 – 1890. Although I talk at length about horse stealing in Nebraska, including its status in the penal code, I don’t mention similar or comparable laws in Texas. While that makes sense, obviously, given the title, the myth that horse thieves were lawfully hanged in Texas remains strong:
This one is my favorite:
My guess is . . . no, I don’t think anyone should be worried about being hanged for horse stealing. This is not to say that horse stealing is not still a problem (because it is), and the fact that people are bringing up hanging at all when referencing modern horse thieves speaks both to the gravity of the problem and the power of the myth itself. But is it actually a myth, or can horse thieves face the death penalty in Texas still?
Let’s find out!
The first thing we need to do is research what the laws in Texas actually were and read what they said about horse stealing. Since we are looking for a Texas state law, and Texas state laws were published, all we need to do in theory is consult the Texas penal code. The earliest digitized copy of Texas criminal law currently available through the Texas Law Library is the 1879 Penal Code of the State of Texas. Passed by the legislature on February 21, 1879, the code superseded preexisting Texas law and exhaustively laid out what was against the law in Texas, and what the prescribed penalty should be for each offense. Since this is a text-searchable PDF, all we need to do is hit Ctrl-F and search for “horse” until we get to the appropriate law.
If you want to skip the searching, you can find the relevant statute on page 97, in Title XVII, Chapter 11:
“If any person shall steal any horse, ass or mule, he shall be punished by confinement in the penitentiary not less than five nor more than fifteen years.”
Here’s a screenshot of the law:
Notice that the punishment for stealing cattle was two to five years in jail, as opposed to between five and fifteen. Cattle were valuable in Texas, but apart from commodity production and pulling draft they had little utility. The difference in punishment between the two underscores how important horses really were, even if horse thieves did not necessarily face the death penalty for their crimes.
This seems pretty conclusive, right? It would be, except for the fact that the above law is from 1879. Texas established its independence from Mexico over three decades earlier, and the United States annexed it in 1845. Needless to say, a lot of violence occurred in Texas during the preceding thirty years: the Texas Revolution, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, a generation of warfare against the Comanches, and the explosion of Texas cattle ranching across the Plains. Wouldn’t it be more likely for horse stealing to be a capital crime during this era, as opposed to 1879, when things presumably cooled down a little bit in the Lone Star State?
Once again, it does not take long to find out what the punishment for horse stealing was in Texas in 1856:
“Article 765. If any person shall steal any horse, gelding, mare, colt, ass, or mule, he shall be punished, by confinement in the Penitentiary, not less than two, nor more than seven years.” Here is a screenshot of the law from the book itself:
One difference that should immediately stand out is that the punishment for horse stealing was actually more severe in 1879 than it was in 1856. Why was that? There are a lot of reasons for this (I talk about them in the book, of course), but one important factor bears mentioning here: horses were more valuable after the Civil War than before. The massive herds of mustangs were declining or moving north, growing ranches required enormous numbers of horses for their remudas, and urbanization elsewhere pulled horses out of rural markets. There was more competition for horses during the late 1870s, and as demand and prices for horses rose so, too, did their role in society. They were used for transportation, plowing, pulling draft, and countless other applications. This made them more ubiquitous and more essential to everyday life.
Yet despite their critical role horses were subject to a host of maladies, from epizootics to snake bites to lighting strikes to old age. They were expensive and virtually uninsurable, and people without the funds to buy multiple horses often overused the ones they had, leading them to age rapidly. Thus, of all the possible problems to plague horse owners, horse thieves shouldered much of the burden, as they were easily scapegoated and could presumably be controlled more easily with threats and punishments than lighting strikes or poisonous snakes.
Naturally, one possible punishment for horse stealing was hanging, and the popular mythology around hanging horse thieves was just as strong in the late-1870s as it is now. The question of whether or not vigilantes frequently hanged horse thieves in Texas is a separate question that deserves a separate answer, but if we assume that it was a strong possibility, then the harsher punishment prescription in 1879 makes a lot of sense. Texas levied five to fifteen year prison sentences against horse thieves not only in order to disincentivize the stealing of an incredibly valuable and uniquely indispensable form of property, but also in order to convince would-be vigilantes that the state was serious about punishing horse thieves.
This post just scratches the surface of what I’ve come to believe is a fascinating, multilayered story about horse theft and its vastly unappreciated and misunderstood role in shaping our laws, politics, culture, and history. It is a story I try to tell in my book. And even though my focus is on Nebraska, there are a LOT of parallels here between Texas and Nebraska law with respect to how they contend with horse stealing.
In the meantime, though, it seems as though our mystery is solved: horse stealing is not, and so far as I can tell never was, a hanging offense in the Lone Star State. Case closed.
Now comes the hard part: convincing everyone on Twitter.
I am excited to announce that the Grandpa’s Letters series will resume next Monday, August 10th, at 10am Pacific Time with my “October 1944” entry. I will then post weekly updates every Monday, with the “finale” post scheduled to drop on November 30th (a week before Pearl Harbor Day).
Although my summer work duties have been time intensive, a big part of the reason for the delay up to this point has been strategic: with my book release coming up this November and a growing slate of promotional opportunities between now and then, I’ve been waiting for the right time to start writing and posting about the last year of my grandpa’s service. And I promise you, it is one hell of a story.
In addition to the weekly updates, I am still planning on posting some cool horse thief-related stuff over the next few months, including some images from the book. Those posts will come primarily on Thursdays.
Anyway . . . Thanks for your patience, and thank you always for reading!
I’ve heard a lot of great things about Greyhound, the new World War II Naval drama starring Tom Hanks and, I guess, Elisabeth Shue (more on that later). I read that it was the most realistic naval war movie in years, if not ever, and the fact that it takes place on a Fletcher-class destroyer makes it even better. Talk about a movie tailor-made for this blog! So, naturally, I had to see it.
Since this is an Apple TV movie, I had to sign up for a free trial for the Apple TV service in order to watch it. Five bucks a month isn’t a terrible price as far as streaming services go (it is a lot less than Netflix) but it all adds up after a while. I will surf it some in the next few days, and if you have any recommendations for what I should watch on there, please leave a comment and tell me!
Anyway, once the trial was set up, I queued up the film and sat back with some chips and a beer ready for a show. Then I looked at the runtime: one hour and 31 minutes! This is definitely a one-beer film. And even that is generous, since the interminably long credits start to roll with 12 minutes left in the film, effectively making this a 75 minute movie.
75 minutes? Tom Green’s movies are longer than that. The Love Guru, possibly the worst film ever made, clocks in at 84 minutes. Even Uwe Boll can crank out 100 minutes of whatever the heck it is that Uwe Boll makes when he points a camera at something. Why is Greyhound so short?
The answer to that question, I think, is key to figuring out this movie.
Let’s go back to the resounding praise most folks seem to have for the film’s accuracy. Greyhound speaks the language of a Tin Can deck. Officers and crew are constantly barking out and then repeating orders, sonar readings, sub sightings, etc. The word “bearing” is probably shouted at least 200 times. Director Aaron Schneider revels in this staccato dialogue, which realistically conveys the urgency Commander Ernst Krause and his crew felt during those long hours while escorting a large convoy across “the Black Pit” without the aid of air cover during the Battle of the Atlantic. Both the dialogue and the editing come at breakneck speed – I found it helpful to watch with closed captioning – which underlines just how quickly a battle with a U-boat can turn in real time.
Without moving into spoiler territory, let’s just say that Schneider fits a lot of stuff into 75 minutes. And the film’s pacing is deliberate enough that I come away from it thinking that if it were to run any slower, with those long deliberative character pauses that we see in films like Hunt for Red October, then it would just be another hackneyed Naval combat movie. I applaud Schneider for not embracing that schtick, since if he were to do that, with Tom Hanks as the lead no less, he still would have made a fine – if not great – movie.
But I don’t think that this movie is great, either, precisely because the entire film seems to channel 1917 and Dunkirk in making a real time-conscious war movie. When successful, the real time effect, pioneered by Alfred Hitchcock and popularized by the Fox series 24, accentuates the heart-pounding drama of the story minute by minute. Greyhound cannot truly hew to this format, however, since the action takes place over two days (each sequence is preceded by a title card indicating the name of the corresponding watch period). As a result, the film is a stream of crises, one after another, boom boom boom. By way of comparison, it is not unlike an edited YouTube video, in which the narrator’s pauses are cut, thus resulting in a continuous if visibly disjointed presentation. While that is not necessarily bad in and of itself, Schneider’s commitment to accuracy and the resulting jargon-laced dialogue makes the pacing frenetic and, at several points, tiresome. It’s a bit like listening to air traffic controllers for a hour on end, but instead of listening in on the radio transmissions, you’re standing in the middle of the tower at 9am on a Friday at JFK. The chatter soon turns into a cacophony.
The film is not totally robotic – Hanks is fantastic (as always) and there are some genuinely emotional and even solemn moments in the movie. However, it needs to be diluted a bit. Elisabeth Shue’s character is in the movie for about three minutes, and then she is gone (presumably to go babysit some mischievous kids in a Chicago suburb). Why is she even in the previews? Her disappearance five minutes in hints at a larger indictment: that there is almost zero character development. We learn three (mostly spoiler-free) facts about Commander Krause: he is devoutly religious, he drinks a lot of coffee, and his shoes may be a size too small. Schneider and Hanks lionize, rather than humanize, his character, and in this sense Krause is basically Captain John Miller in a different service uniform. With the recent trend in war movies to make protagonists into regular, flawed humans (see The Pacific, Band of Brothers, The Hurt Locker, etc), and not Greatest Generation caricatures, this seems like a misstep. It would not have taken a lot of money or time to shoot a few extra scenes in the San Francisco hotel where the movie opens and add some backstory, some flashbacks, some flash-forwards, or just something to break up the flow.
Apart from those criticisms, however, Greyhound is a fast-faced, entertaining, and perhaps even instructive war movie. It is definitely worth watching.
But is it worth subscribing to Apple TV? Well . . . I just discovered that every episode of Fraggle Rock is on there, so I suppose the question is now moot, at least for me.