Category Archives: History

No End of Charlie Johnsons


According to Erik Larsen in The Devil in the White City, visitors to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair were able to drop their children at an official daycare and retrieve them by claim check in the evening. The only child never reclaimed by his parents that summer was a boy named Charlie Johnson. Armed with Larsen’s single mention, I spent all of five minutes researching the story – just long enough to learn nothing solid and yet develop a fanciful hypothesis I’m loath to spoil by looking into it any deeper.

I would very much like to believe that the orphaned Charlie Johnson mentioned by Larsen was the illegitimate namesake son of a famous Mormon photographer and an unknown vaudeville actress.

Charles Ellis Johnson was known for his stereographs of Utah landmarks like the Saltair Pavilion and the freshly dedicated Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. He also had a sideline making boudoir portraits of burlesque dancers and actress. One of his subjects was the poet, spiritualist and sometime-actress Ella Wheeler Wilcox, whom I can’t help mentioning. Advised by Johnson that one of his coreligionists found a photograph of her distasteful, Wilcox replied: “Tell the gentleman that I am sorry he should object to a little bit of neck. He probably had a surfeit of necks in his plural wives, and it gave him a sort of physical indigestion. You see what a terrible thing polygamy is sometimes, when it unfits a man for appreciating a pretty shoulder.”

I do not suggest that Wilcox was our Charlie’s mother. Johnson photographed innumerable young women who might have been more susceptible to smooth talk and promises of free publicity: nameless dance hall lovelies wrapped in white tulle to simulate nudity, some cradling kittens to their erupting bosoms, others half-undressed and having all kinds of trouble with their stockings. One of these unknowns, by my theory, was our young Charlie’s mother. I do not know her name.

As I imagine it, she’d given birth to Charlie in 1890 or ‘91 and named the boy for his absent father, believing still that Johnson would leave his wife (a later daughter of Brigham Young) and run off with her instead. Of course he didn’t. He may have sent money from time to time, but never enough, and his erstwhile mistress and their child spent bleak winter nights eating beans and oatmeal in a cold Denver hovel, perhaps, or in Reno. Little Charlie’s mother threatened to write the Salt Lake papers and expose her former lover, but she failed to stir him.

One way or another she learned that Johnson would attend the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in company with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. (It is a fact that he did so.) She used the near-last of her funds for a ticket to Chicago. Johnson had never seen his son in the flesh; perhaps, she thought, his heart would soften when he did. Underfed and without proper accommodation, the toddler and young mother loitered near the fairground entrance at Jackson Park for several days until, by sheer luck, they found themselves face to face with the whiskered photographer.

In my fantasy, Johnson gave a shutter click of recognition when he saw her, a give-away blink. He liked to say that he never forgot a subject. Then he looked down at the ragged boy, nodded once, and strode off into the swirling crowd without a single word. His heart had not softened. Charlie’s mother used the last of her money to buy tickets to the Exposition and a piece of taffy for Charles Jr. They wandered through the White City for an hour or two, holding hands, before she dropped him at the daycare, giving his name in exchange for a claim check. This, I suggest, she ate. Then she vanished too.

What became of the boy? Perhaps the Charlie Johnson abandoned at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 is the same Charley Johnson adopted by George Brown of Charlotte County, Florida some time later. There’s a photograph of him in the county archives – at ten or twelve years old – wearing a tan bowler and pinstripe suit of second quality with the sleeves cut short. Maybe, by some miracle, this Charley Johnson is also the same Charlie Johnson (born in 1891, supposedly in Philadelphia) who went on to become a well-known jazz pianist and band leader of the Paradise Ten from 1925 to 1938.

There are other options, of course. The name is by no means uncommon, and neither, unfortunately, is ophanhood. There is no end of Charlie Johnsons.

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Flora Wellman

Flora Wellman

Near Third and Brannan, a few blocks from my office in San Francisco, is an unremarkable building with a green and black stone façade and a plaque on its side indicating the spot where Jack London was born in 1876.  It’s hard to believe this was ever a residential district.  It’s a neighborhood of upscale and downscale restaurants, bars, artists’ studios, and warehouses that have, for the most part, been carved up into offices for technology companies.  But the whole area was leveled and charred in the great earthquake and fire of 1906.

The day of Jack’s nativity must have been a memorable one for the neighbors.  Not so much, perhaps, for the sake of the famous author the infant would one day become, but for the scandal of his peculiar mother and her troubled pregnancy.  I often think of her when I walk up Third Street on my lunch hour and pass the site where the house once stood.

Flora Wellman was a native of Ohio who had run away from her well-to-do family and fled west.  She wound up a boarder in the house of Henry Yesler, mayor of Seattle in the Washington Territory, and it was there that she met William Chaney, a freethinker and charlatan astrologer who was, by all accounts but his own, Jack’s father.  It’s unclear if the two were ever legally married, but they relocated to bohemian San Francisco, where they went into business together and contributed to the publication of Common Sense: A Journal of Live Ideas.  Flora Wellman was a music teacher by training, but also, like Chaney, a spiritualist, and subject to bouts of possession by the ghost of a long-dead Indian chief.  She had been an especially attractive child, it was said, but had suffered a strange fever at an early age that put a halt to her growth at well under five feet and left her mostly bald: she wore a wig the rest of her life.  Even in the San Francisco of the day, famous for odd characters, she must have made an impression: a dwarfish, baby-faced lady necromancer, humming as she stomped down the street, her belly more and more notably swollen.

On discovering that Flora was pregnant, Chaney insisted she get rid of the inconvenience by whatever means necessary.  She seems to have made a half-hearted attempt at suicide in response, shooting herself with a pistol, but not fatally and with no very serious long-term effects.  Chaney publicly abandoned her and disowned the child.  Then, by all accounts, Flora Wellman lost her mind.  When she found it again, several months later, she discovered that she was a mother.  She and the baby would not live near the corner of Third and Brannan for long, however.  Within a year, Flora married a Civil War veteran named John London, whose last name was given to her boy as well, and the little family made the first of many changes of address.

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Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico

Emperor Norton

One hundred and fifty years ago today Joshua Abraham Norton donned the purple robe of empire. I keep a portrait of him on the wall of my cubicle, near Cervantes, who despite the lapse of years might have been an appropriate godfather to him.

He had two mutt dogs, Bummer and Lazarus, who followed him about. When Bummer died in 1865, Mark Twain wrote the dog’s obituary.

“In what other city,” Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, “would a harmless madman who supposed himself emperor … been so fostered and encouraged?”

The Chronicle commemorates his reign today.  Wikipedia article here.

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Carmel: A Study in Contrasting Californias

Mission Carmel

The family and I made a day trip this past weekend to Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel, one of the loveliest remnants of Spanish imperial influence left in California.  It was founded in 1770 by Junipero Serra as the second of the Alta California missions, after San Diego de Alcala four hundred miles to the south.  Serra made it his base of operations and his home, and died here in 1784.

If I had the proper architectural vocabulary, I would explain why the lines of the barrel vaulted ceiling in the church are so pleasing – and the old bell tower dome, and the walled-in gardens, and the mixed arcades that frame a courtyard planted with flowers and succulents, oaks and palms and a magnificent Monterey cypress.  The sensory appeal reaches even to the nose: flush with odors of warm earth, incense, sap and pollen, of polished wood and leather and old stone.  In and around the church (technically a basilica) and its adjoining chapels and shrines, one finds a rich collection of Catholic religious art and devotional objects: icons and statuary, dioramas, mosaics and bas-relief, and an impressive cenotaph of the Mission’s sainted founder, who lies buried beneath the red flags of the sanctuary floor. 

After an hour at the Mission, the town of Carmel itself is such a sickly, sallow thing – full of pretense and needless show: multi-million dollar ‘cottages,’ double-parked German automobiles, blocks of superfluous would-be art galleries and price-gouging boutiques, each dedicated to a different fashion accessory.  We made a drive along the shoreline where some of Carmel’s most impressively indulgent homes overlook a white sand beach and rocky promontory that necks its way into the Pacific.  Crowded in here among the worst offenders is Robinson Jeffers’ old home, Tor House, with its adjoining tower, hand-built by Jeffers after he bought what in 1914 was a wild and somewhat isolated strip of property at the northernmost edge of the Big Sur coast.
 
Jeffers was the poet and chronicler of what I consider a ‘middle’ California, one placed somewhere between Serra’s California and today’s.  As a child I sometimes glimpsed that middle California in the older downtowns and orchard corners of the countryside, and in the remembrances and manners of my maternal grandparents.  It was a place recognizably home but no longer fully present: temperate and fruitful in more than climate, expansive and welcoming, but ultimately untamed and prone to temblors of unsettled identity.  It was a place apart: American, but fingering still the short-lived Bear Flag with sufficient sense of its own mythical otherness to be not quite, not fully, a piece of America.

How little patience Jeffers would have had for present-day Carmel’s open orgy of cultivated excess and spotlighted consumption.  How little patience he would have for the appointed keepers of his memory: those who manage the Tor House museum and hand out pamphlets printed with unicorns and his most saccharine off-hand quotations; and those who would make him into a patron saint of American environmentalism.  Jeffers had little use for people, and even less for what men and women might do banded together in organized political movements.  His pessimism for human value and endeavor was boundless.  “I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk,” he wrote.  For all that mankind might temporarily achieve or temporarily destroy, man for Jeffers was finally an object of indifference, nothing but a sport, a fad a nature and of Nature’s hard God, “who is,” he said, “very beautiful, but hardly a friend of humanity.”

Jeffers was hugely popular in the 1920s and ‘30s but isn’t much read today, which is a shame.  At his worst he was a plain misanthrope, caught helplessly in the knot of his upbringing: the heretic son of a Presbyterian minister, forever rebelling against a predestinating God while lusting all the same after a parallel vision of naturalistic determinism.  But at his best – in a number of his shorter pieces and a few of his epic California coastal narratives like Tamar and Cawdor – Jeffers was capable of epigrammatic potency and a taut, almost Sophoclean intensity of emotional expression rare in American poetry. 

His fame brought famous visitors to Tor House – people like D.H Lawrence, Charles Lindbergh and J. Krishnamurti – and Jeffers was featured on the cover of Time magazine in April 1932.  After the war, which Jeffers bitterly opposed, most of his readers and admirers abandoned him.  Jeffers’ work largely vanished from print after his death in 1962.  (It’s recently been reissued by Stanford University Press).  The town of Carmel eventually wrapped itself around Tor House, filling in the woods that separated it from Junipero Serra’s Mission a mile inland and obscuring its view of the Pacific.  Jeffers’ legacy and his home, I think, make a nicely illustrative chapter in the competing narratives of California, a place he loved and dreaded, and one he thought marked by its geography and impassive beauty for a special tragic destiny.

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Excelsior

obamaposter

Who has gone farthest? for I would go farther,
And who has been just? for I would be the most just person of the earth,
And who most cautious? for I would be more cautious,
And who has been happiest? O, I think it is I – I think no one was ever happier than I,
And who has lavish’d all? for I lavish constantly the best I have,
And who proudest? for I think I have reason to be the proudest son alive – for I am the son of the brawny and tall-topt city,
And who has been bold and true? for I would be the boldest and truest being of the universe,
And who benevolent? for I would show more benevolence than all the rest,
And who has receiv’d the love of the most friends? for I know what it is to receive the passionate love of many friends,
And who possesses a perfect and enamour’d body? for I do not believe anyone possesses a more perfect or enamour’d body than mine,
And who thinks the amplest thoughts? for I would surround those thoughts,
And who has made hymns fit for the earth? for I am mad with devouring ecstasy to make joyous hymns for the whole earth.

~ Walt Whitman

This is in so many different ways, for so many different people, a very powerful moment in America.  I’m under no illusions.  If politics is the art of the possible, history has a way of showing us how limited are our possibilities, how our best ideals and intentions are often turned awry, and how the contradictions inherent in persons and nations have always a way of claiming their pound of flesh.  But no matter our lesser allegiances, we hold our breath today.

Photo credit: Steve Rhodes, creative commons license

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Silent Skies

We participate in a tragedy; at a comedy we only look.

~ Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudun

In the late fall of 1994, during my last year at college, I was riding in the back of a small car through the Phinney Ridge district of Seattle when our vehicle was hit by a speeding pizza deliveryman.  I was knocked unconscious.  I came to before I was able to open my eyes.  I remember sitting several moments in darkness, confused, feeling sick, vaguely aware of the sound of a person moaning.  After being strapped to a backboard and trundled into an ambulance, a police officer asked me a series of what I thought were hypothetical questions concerning an auto accident. I had no idea what he was talking about.

I wasn’t badly hurt. There was some mild internal bleeding (I pissed blood for a day) but nothing of real concern.  Everyone involved in the accident was fine or on the way to fine.  We were all sent home after several hours in the emergency room.

The next day it snowed and I skipped class.  I hurt everywhere: my back, my neck, my arms and legs.  But I couldn’t care less.  There was welling up in me a peculiar sensation, like nothing I’d ever felt before.  The warmth inside the apartment, the presence of friends, the crisp air outside and the snow, a bird on the porch surprised by the change of weather – it was all an incredible, delicious joy to me that day.  I was intensely conscious of the fact that I was alive and that to be alive was astounding.  This euphoria lasted almost a week.

I experienced the same sensation again in the days immediately following September 11, 2001.  I might be faulted for it.  After all, I hadn’t been in Manhattan.  I hadn’t been at the Pentagon.  I hadn’t suffered personally at all.  No one I knew had died that morning.  How could I justify a euphoria which I knew belonged only to survivors?

Somehow we were all New Yorkers that day seven years ago.  Those that suffered and those that died – they became, somehow, us and our loved ones.  The faces that emerged from the mountainous clouds of debris, fleeing the collapse and the volcanic flow of rubble, faces full of horror and desperation – they were our own faces.

We learned then that tears are the common property of humanity.  We held their broken bones, broken hearts, pain and anger in our hands and, as much as we were able, bore them.  We learned – if only for a moment – what it means to truly identify with another person, to know that your neighbor’s life is your own.

In the days that followed 9/11 we walked around like children, searching the skies.  My wife and I were living in Seattle under a busy flyway. Jetliners typically passed every few minutes; we’d grown accustomed to it.  But now we gazed up at the sky for the planes that weren’t there.  Nothing came out of the sky anymore but birds and falling leaves, and an unembarrassed, exulting silence.  Despite the horror of all that had passed, there was a beautiful, potent joy in that silence.  It fell down on us in those days like the snow or September leaves, like a strange sort of grace.

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Dragon Trees of California

There is a craze all over the state about the eucalyptus or Australian blue gum tree…  Eucalyptus will frighten away fevers and murder malaria.  Its leaves cure asthma.  Its roots knock out ague as cold as jelly.  Its bark improves that of a dog.  A dead body buried in a coffin made from the wood of the blue gum will enjoy immunity from the exploring mole and the penetrating worm… [T]his absurd vegetable is now growing all over the State.  One cannot get out of its sight… It defaces every landscape with botches of blue and embitters every breeze with suggestions of an old woman’s medicine chest.  Let us have no more of it.

~ The Argonaut (San Francisco), April 22, 1877

The Englishman William Dampier was a professional pirate and an amateur naturalist. He was also the first man to circumnavigate the globe three times.  After a stint in the Third Anglo-Dutch War, Dampier turned buccaneer and spent most of the 1670s and ‘80s harassing Spanish trade routes in the Caribbean and Pacific, with occasional overland raids through Peru and the isthmus of Darien.  In 1688 Dampier was employed aboard a ship called the Cygnet which had careened for repairs on the coast of New Holland – what we know today as Australia. While the Cygnet’s bottom was being scraped, Dampier took the opportunity to explore the area and take notes on the native flora.  He described one unusual species which he named the “dragon tree” (after similar trees he’d seen in the Madeira and Canary Islands).  These dragon trees, he wrote, produced a gum that “distils out of the knots or cracks that are in the bodies of the trees.” 

Dampier was describing the eucalyptus.  There are over seven hundred varieties of eucalyptus in Australia.  The story of how the tree came to fly its isolated homeland and within the space of a hundred years colonize the Indian subcontinent, Africa, parts of Britain, China, the Middle East and the Americas is a curious one.  Here in California, as in certain corners of Uruguay and South Africa, the eucalyptus once threatened to dominate the entire landscape.  Even today, long after the 19th-century eucalyptus craze ended, coastal California is thick with eucalyptus groves.  Many Californians simply assume the trees have always been here.  Any other tree of a size comparable to a full-grown eucalyptus would necessarily pre-date Spanish and American settlement.

Exactly how the eucalyptus came to California is a point of some debate.  It seems likely that it first arrived during the 1849 Gold Rush.  That year nearly 3000 Australians left for California.  The passage from Sydney to San Francisco, across the full immensity of the Pacific, was in those days shorter than the passage from New York to San Francisco, since the latter required rounding Cape Horn.  (The transcontinental railroad and the Panama Canal were achievements of later generations.)  The Australians, in ships built of aromatic “blue gum” eucalyptus, were some of the very first to arrive for the California Gold Rush.  Somewhere aboard one of those vessels was probably stowed a bag of seeds.

The eucalyptus was soon celebrated as a “wonder tree” – and it really is a wonder.  It grows extremely fast.  Some varieties reach 40-feet in five years, or over 150-feet in 25 years.  Planted in California’s sparsely wooded central and southern coastal pale, it offered a quick return in firewood and lumber, and made a fast-growing wind-brake.  And though it will thrive in arid climates, eucalyptus roots can drain great quantities of water from the soil.  It was planted in many of California’s wetlands to open them up for farming and deny the mosquito a breeding ground in the standing water.  The eucalyptus is largely responsible for putting an end to the endemic malaria that plagued California through the 19th century.  It promised other health benefits too.  Oil distilled from eucalyptus leaves, for example, could be used to produce cleaning products or medicinals like decongestants and cough drops.

By the 1870s, as the Gold Rush petered out, a “Gum Rush” took hold.  Tens of thousands of acres were planted on any available open land.  Lumber mills dedicated solely to the eucalyptus were built.   Professional naturalists and amateur enthusiasts toured the state preaching the benefits of the eucalyptus and advocating its broader cultivation.  Ellwood Cooper was one such gum tree evangelist.  As president of Santa Barbara College, Cooper planted hundreds of acres.  His lush groves of eucalyptus were renowned through all California.  In a lecture delivered in 1875, Cooper praised the eucalyptus as a sort of universal remedy for health complaints and meteorological inclemency.  Plant more gum trees, he said, and the winds will calm, the summer heats moderate, and human health and social well being will improve all around.

But just as the Gold Rush had come and gone, the Gum Rush fizzled out.  The wood couldn’t be properly seasoned to fulfill all the uses for which it had been intended.  The pharmacists lost interest.  A hardwood shortage that contributed to the fevered planting of eucalyptus was instead resolved by increased use of other building materials such as steel, bricks and cement.  And just as the Gold Rush had left behind a landscape transfigured, the short-lived enthusiasm over the Australian gum tree utterly changed California.  The trees were everywhere – and not everyone was happy about it.  The editorialist in San Francisco’s Argonaut newspaper, quoted above, spoke for not a few of his fellow citizens.

Today, botanists and environmental purists in California consider the eucalyptus a “weed,” an invasive, non-native pest.  They style eucalyptus groves “infestations” and call for its total elimination from the landscape.  But there are still others, like yours truly, who recall fondly the blue gum ships that sailed into the Golden Gate in 1849, and who honor the tree that cured malaria.  There are still those who love the cool stillness of a eucalyptus grove in mid-summer, the bark that peels in long crisp sheets, and the clean antiseptic smell of the blue and green dragon scale leaves.

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