Christian Schneider

Author, Columnist

Category: History

Some First-Rate Detective Work

As part of a potential work project, I’ve been going through some old newspapers from 1916.  Of course, there are plenty of odd anachronisms that catch one’s eye while reading papers from a century ago.  But this story, which is absolutely true, really caught my eye.  It’s from the February 11, 1916 Milwaukee Sentinel.

According to the article, Milwaukee police detectives Jacob Laubenheimer and Harry Ridenour were paging through the newspaper one day when they saw the following advertisement:

“Wanted: Strong, husky young men as private detectives.  Opportunity to travel all over the world.  Apply at Asiatic Pacific Detective agency, Room 713, Majestic Building.”

Thinking the ad was a bit too good to be true, Laubenheimer and Ridenour headed down to the agency to pose as potential enrollees.  There they met Brightley Severinghaus, who claimed to be the head of the agency. “You look like a detective and where it usually takes us a month to train candidates for our private force, I think I can get you through in about three weeks,” Severinghaus told Laubenheimer.

“Fine,” said Laubenheimer.  “When do I get my first lesson?”

“You will have to put up $5 and then the same amount every week,” said Severinghaus.

Laubenheimer fumbled around and found $2 in his pocket – Ridenour fronted him the remaining $3.  Laubenheimer then paid Severinghaus, and after receiving a receipt, put him under arrest.

“I thought you would make a good detective when I first saw you,” said Severinghaus.

Later, a court sent him to an emergency room to have his sanity tested.

For some reason, this made me laugh for a good couple of hours.  I’m sure Laubenheimer felt good about passing Severinghaus’ class so quickly.

Well, That’s One Argument

I don’t know who former AP reporter Arthur L. Srb is, but I like his style.  Every time I spend some time diving through microfilm at the State Historical Society, I end up with some real gems.  This one is from April of 1974 and appeared in the Appleton Post-Crescent:

(Click on the picture to read the story.)

And as a bonus, here’s some indispensable advice from everyone’s favorite medical columnist, Dr. G.C. Thosteson:

(Again, click to read.)

H.L. Mencken on the Recession

Okay, he was talking about the depression, but it still holds beautifully:

It is only the story of those Americans who yielded irrationally to professional seers and visionaries, as yokels yield to travelling [sic] corn-doctors and evangelists… Are the rest of us in the same boat? I doubt it.  The boat we are in is getting some unpleasant rocking from the foundering of the other, but it is tighter of seam and will survive.  We have all lost something, but not many have really lost everything.  In actual values, the country is still rich, and any man who owns any honest part of it still has that part, and will see it making money for him when the clouds roll by… It seems to me that the depression will be well worth its cost if it brings Americans back to their senses.  Once they rediscover the massive fact that hard thrift and not gambler’s luck is the only true basis of national wealth, they will discover simultaneously that a perfectly civilized and contented life is possible without the old fuss and display.

Was Mark Twain a Teabagger?

Begin reading Mark Twain’s novel “The Gilded Age,” and you’ll discover a fascinating and humorous story about settlers in early Missouri.  Its pages contain love, intrigue, and adventure.

But then, in Chapter 15, Twain (along with his co-writer Charles Dudley Warner) launches a broadside attack on Congress.  See if this sounds at all familiar:

“If you are a member of Congress, (no offence,) and one of your constituents who doesn’t know anything, and does not want to go into the bother of learning something, and has no money, and no employment, and can’t earn a living, comes besieging you for help, do you say “Come, my friend, if your services were valuable you could get employment elsewhere – don’t want you here?” Oh, no.  You take him to a Department and say, “here, give this person something to pass away the time at – and a salary” – and the thing is done.  You throw him on his country.  He is his country’s child, let his country support him.  There is something good and motherly about Washington, the grand old benevolent National Asylum for the Helpless.”

Recently at WPRI, we’ve been trying to call attention to government employee salaries and benefits.  Twain was on the same page:

“The wages received by this great hive of employes are placed at the liberal figure feet and just for skilled and competent labor.  Such of them as are immediately employed about the two Houses of Congress, are not only liberally paid also, but are remembered in the customary Extra Compensation bill which slides neatly through, annually, with the general grab that signalizes the last night of a session, and thus twenty per cent. Is added to their wages, for – for fun, no doubt.”

“The Gilded Age” came out in 1873.

Amazing How Far We’ve Come

A few weeks back, the Wisconsin Historical Society held their “Odd Wisconsin” exhibit, where they lay out various interesting Wisconsin historical artifacts for public inspection.  The coolest thing there was a hand-written speech by Abe Lincoln that he delivered in Milwaukee in 1859, although I’m not sure how that counted as “odd.”  It was mostly just awesome.

I chuckled at this 1912 anti-women’s suffrage poster, which claimed that allowing women to cast ballots would be doubling the “irresponsible vote.”

There was also an anti-suffrage poster (which I can’t find in the online collection) that depicted a woman juggling a baby, a frying pan, a broom, and a ballot.  The implication was that we can’t expect women to be able to juggle all of those responsibilities and still be expected to vote.  Just crazy.

Demolishing a Historical Site

Despite the state facing a $5.4 billion deficit, it appears Wisconsin taxpayers are about to become the proud owners of Supreme Video, an adult video store in Oshkosh.  In order to clear land to widen U.S. Highway 41, the state Department of Transportation is negotiating to purchase the video store, rather than using eminent domain.  There’s no word on whether taxpayers will be able to lay claim to the store’s contents.

Of course, during the negotiations, there appears to be no discussion of what a historical site Supreme Video has become in Wisconsin politics.  You may remember that Supreme is the place former Wisconsin State Senator Gerald Lorge was arrested in August of 2000, for soliciting sex from an undercover male police officer.  From the Wisconsin State Journal’s account:

Former state Sen. Gerald Lorge exposed himself to an undercover police officer at an adult bookstore and then begged the officer not to arrest him, according to a complaint charging him with lewd and lascivious behavior.

The charge was filed Tuesday in Winnebago County Circuit Court involving an Aug. 2 incident at Supreme Video in Oshkosh.

Lorge, a 78-year-old Republican from Bear Creek, faces $ 10,000 in fines and nine months in prison if convicted of the charge.

The complaint said Lorge exposed himself to an undercover police officer while in a booth at the store and asked the officer to perform oral sex on him.

After he was arrested, Lorge told the officer that he had been ”a state senator for 30 years and that this would ruin him,” the complaint said.

Of course, that is the sanitized version of what happened.  At some point, I had in my possession the actual police report, which likely remains the funniest legal documents ever produced in Wisconsin.  I’d try to quote from it, but I’d want to get it just right, and the actual details probably don’t belong on this blog anyway.  Just trust me – it’s one of the more fantastic arrest reports that has ever existed.

In any event, the state is about to own this site.  So highway or no highway, I think the DOT could at least commemorate the piece of land with a plaque of some kind.  It deserves at least that much.

UPDATE:  The text of the criminal complaint has been obtained.  Get your popcorn and read it here.

Rooted in Socialism

If you go to enough conservative events, eventually you\’re going to hear the \”S\” word bandied about. Inevitably, someone will warn of the impending doom if the \”socialist\” Democrats take over. While I\’m certainly sympathetic to the cause, I generally to bristle at these attempts to tie modern Democrats to the murderous regimes of Lenin and Stalin. Nancy Pelosi\’s reconstructed visage may break my HDTV, but I\’m guessing she\’s not going to steal and murder my children.

In any event, if any state has a history of being friendly to socialism, it is Wisconsin. Milwaukee famously elected three Socialist mayors in the first half of the 20th Century – a feat unique to large American cities. The State Senate and Assembly often housed members of the Socialist Party in the \’20s and \’30s – in some years, there were more Socialists than Democrats. Yet while they were socialist in name, rarely did they govern as Socialists in practice. (Much of this is detailed in Robert Booth Fowler\’s excellent new book \”Wisconsin Votes.\”)

It\’s even more interesting when one examines the modern Democratic agenda and its roots within the Socialist movement of the early 1900\’s. For instance, look at many of the current Democratic talking points: We have to tax excessive oil profits. We have to tax hospital profits. Insurance companies are charging us too much, so we should have government take over health care and tax business to pay for it.

If these sound familiar, it\’s because these attempts to \”tax the profiteers\” have been around for the entirety of Wisconsin\’s history. And predominantly from the Socialist Party.

Check out this campaign flier from Socialist Party candidate for U.S. Senate Candidate Victor L. Berger, in which he vows to \”Tax the Profiteers.\” (Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society\’s Online Collection)

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Again, this doesn\’t mean modern Democrats and the vile European Socialist Regimes are married to one another. But at the very least, they are pen pals.

SIDE NOTE: Berger, who was one of the founding members of the Socialist Party in Wisconsin, had a phenomenal public career. From his Historical Society biography:

Berger was elected the first Socialist member of Congress and served from 1911 to 1913. He was reelected in 1918 and 1919. Congress excluded his seat on grounds of sedition, a charge for which he was sentenced to a 20-year prison term. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed this decision in 1921. He was allowed to take his seat when reelected in 1922.

Your Elected Pitchmen

I was doing some research the other day, and ended up digging through a 1903 copy of the Wisconsin State Journal (don\’t ask why). While somewhat tedious, it provides a fascinating look into life around the turn of the century, while Wisconsin was still feeling its way around as a state.

Of course, back then elected officials were as big as celebrities got. There weren\’t any movie stars or nationwide sports stars that dominated the media like they do today. As a result, elected officials often served as pitchmen for certain products – a practice that seems inconceivable today.

Take, for example, the ad below for some bogus tonic called Pe-Ru-Na, which is supposed to cure all \”Catarrhal Affections.\” (A catarrhal affection is one that deals with \”inflammation of a mucous membrane, especially of the respiratory tract, accompanied by excessive secretions.\” In horses and sheep, it can cause \”bluetongue.\” Enjoy your lunch.) You can click on the image to see a bigger version:

As you can see, Congressman Zenor of Indiana isn\’t alone in his enthusiasm for Pe-Ru-Na. Apparently, over 40 members of Congress also swore by this snake oil. The first paragraph reads:

\”No other remedy invented by man has ever received so much praise from men of high station as Peruna. Over forty members of Congress have tried it and recommended it to suffering humanity. They use it themselves to guard against the effects of the intense strain of public life; to ward off the ill effects of the changeable climate of Washington. They keep it in their homes for family use. They recommend it to their neighbors, and they do not hesitate in public print to declare their appreciation and endorsement of this greatest of modern remedies.\”

Well, I\’m convinced.

In today\’s world, when legislators\’ financial interests are examined, observed, and taken apart, it seems inconceivable that any current elected official would appear in an ad for a common product. That\’s what we have William Shatner for.

In order to show how jarring this practice would be today, imagine these:

Or this:

Of course, that\’s not where the oddities in the 1903 end.

In the event that anyone thinks the current legislature lacks seriousness, take note that in March of 1903, an unnamed legislator introduced a bill that sought to \”repeal the law of gravitation.\” (In those days, bills could be introduced without an author\’s name attached.) The text of the bill was as follows:

Section 1. The law of gravitation, as discovered by one Isaac Newton, is hereby repealed, and the rule of \”Stop, look, and listen!\” as announced by the Supreme Court of the State of Wisconsin, is substituted therefor.

Section 2. The Act shall be in force from, and after the passage and publication of the \”Woman Suffrage Act.\”

Of course, women couldn\’t vote in 1903, which is what made that such a joke. Essentially, they were saying the anti-gravity bill would take effect when hell freezes over (i.e. when women could vote.) In fact, 1903 was the first year any legislator in Wisconsin actually introduced a bill to give women the right to vote. But without question, introduction of this bill caused much laughter, rejoicing, mustache stroking, and gunplay in the Assembly chambers.

Among other bills considered in the 1903 session:

1. A bill making three years of insanity a cause for divorce;

2. A bill prohibiting kissing in public;

3. A bill barring marriage between whites and \”mulattoes;\”

4. A bill requiring banks to close at noon on Saturdays; and

5. A bill requiring \”hospitals for the insane\” to have departments to deal with \”dipsomaniacs, inebriates, and those addicted to the excessive use of narcotics.\”

If I could wish for anything, it might be the time and patience to go back and sift through these old papers. This stuff is just fascinating.

Behold Wisconsin History

The Wisconsin Historical Society is a wonderful repository of arcane tidbits about our state’s lineage.  To show that they leave no detail unturned, feel free to visit the online photo gallery they have dedicated to Wisconsin’s Historical Beards.

This page is great news if you happen to be a fan of, say, Miletus Knight.  And who can forget ol’ Edward Thomas Owen?

I would have to say, however, that my favorite has to be this picture, entitled “Man With Small Beard.”It barely beats out its closest competitor, “Man With Beard.”

Fun Fact: Wisconsin’s First Black Legislator

Today’s fun Wisconsin state government fact, courtesy of the 2007-09 Blue Book:

The story behind Wisconsin’s first black legislator is interesting, since it seems like such a fluke. Lucien Palmer, a resort manager and hotel steward from Milwaukee, was elected in 1906 to the State Assembly. It is believed by some that Palmer earned his election because voters confused him with another Palmer who was white. This is supported by the fact that Lucien Palmer only lasted one session – it is possible that voters figured out who he was.

It wasn’t until 1944 that another African-American, Le Roy J. Simmons of Milwaukee, was elected to the Assembly. There has been black representation in the Legislature ever since.  This fact really makes Lucien Palmer an outlier, and the circumstances of his election are probably a very interesting story.

Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society

Fun Fact: Wisconsin\’s First Black Legislator

Today\’s fun Wisconsin state government fact, courtesy of the 2007-09 Blue Book:

\"\"The story behind Wisconsin\’s first black legislator is interesting, since it seems like such a fluke. Lucien Palmer, a resort manager and hotel steward from Milwaukee, was elected in 1906 to the State Assembly. It is believed by some that Palmer earned his election because voters confused him with another Palmer who was white. This is supported by the fact that Lucien Palmer only lasted one session – it is possible that voters figured out who he was.

It wasn\’t until 1944 that another African-American, Le Roy J. Simmons of Milwaukee, was elected to the Assembly. There has been black representation in the Legislature ever since.  This fact really makes Lucien Palmer an outlier, and the circumstances of his election are probably a very interesting story.

Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society

Fun With Blue Books

Last week, the University of Wisconsin Digital Library posted the content of all the state\’s Blue Books, dating back to 1853.  As you may know, the Blue Book is the official Wisconsin Almanac of all things political, industrial, agricultural, and social.  Needless to say, they are a gold mine of information about our history.

Most noticably, Blue Books carry really interesting historical information about Wisconsin\’s elected officials.  Naturally, photos are included.  Here are some photos from some notable and some not-so notable of Wisconsin\’s past representatives:

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In Wisconsin government, the early \’90s will best be known for school finance reform and horrific legislative hair – as evidenced by two neighboring Assembly representatives who went on to serve as Attorney General and Senate Majority leader, respectively:

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The 1944-50 period saw the introduction to the Legislature of two future heavyweights in Wisconsin politics, Warren Knowles and Gaylord Nelson:

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That time period also saw the introduction of a future Wisconsin Governor and a mother of a future Wisconsin Governor, who also happened to be the wife of a gubernatorial candidate. Patrick Lucey and Ruth Bachhuber Doyle represented adjacent Assembly districts in 1950:

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\”The Freshman Assembly Class of 1956 would like to welcome Fred Risser, who surely is well on his way to bigger and better things in the near future.\”

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Other photos of note:

Clement Zablocki isn\’t voting for your damn bill, and there\’s nothing you can say about it, hippie.

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In 1944, Senator Taylor Brown perfected the \”Gumby\” style of hairdo, which would be passed down to his namesake Bobby Brown in 1989:

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Progressive Representative William Foley wasn\’t afraid to represent how they rolled in Superior in 1944:

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In 1944, the Legislature was primarily a club for white men, as they had not started electing those pesky women and minorities.  One notable exception was Margaret Varda from Iron County – it appears in this series of photos that her two neighboring Assemblymen are actually looking at her and expressing their disdain.  Almost a \”who brought the woman to our poker game?\” type of look:

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All these photos and other tidbits can be found at the Blue Book archive list.  It\’s worth your time.

In Search of a Mascot

A friend of mine in the Legislature dug up this little historical tidbit:

In 1945, the Wisconsin Legislature actually had an official mascot – Trooper was a male German Shepherd seeing-eye dog who was made the official legislative mascot by 1945 Joint Resolution 80.  Trooper even got his own picture in the state\’s \”Blue Book,\” which is the biennial almanac of state government.  Here it is:

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In 2003, when I was working in the Legislature on the Taxpayer\’s Bill of Rights (TABOR), a co-worker of mine and I decided that TABOR really needed a mascot to really give it the momentum it needed. We picked an alligator with sunglasses, which, of course, is the universal symbol of fiscal restraint. Sadly, the cartoon alligator wasn\’t enough to convince the Legislature to pass the constitutional amendment.Â

Of course, this leads one to wonder what an appropriate mascot for the 2007 legislature should be. Feel free to comment with suggestions. Here\’s my first crack at it:

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Greatest Government Program. Ever.

Part of the fun of researching issues is the stuff you stumble across that you\’re not even looking for.

For instance, today I uncovered an old report from a government program that actually paid cash to state employees for offering up ideas to save money.  It was called the \”State Employees Suggestion Program.\”  They actually had a big banquet where they gave state employees awards for suggesting budget cuts.  And I am not even kidding.

In fact, here are some details found in this report on the program from 1988:

During 1988, 50 cash awards totalling $4,945 were given out for suggestions from state employees, and 54 certificates of commendation were issued.  According to the report, suggestions offered in 1988 saved state taxpayers $680,580.  In the previous five years, it was estimated that the program saved taxpayers $3.5 million.

Special recognition goes to Martin Romero at the Department of Administration, who won the 1988 \”Suggester of the Year\” award for suggesting WEPCO apply for energy conservation rebates offered by the company itself.  Apparently, it saved $600,000 that year (out of $680,580 total).

Much thanks goes to the Kettle Moraine Correctional Institution, which was awarded the 1988  \”Agency of the Year\” award, due in part to the fact that the institution generated an average of one suggestion per eight employees.  People are still talking about that year – not even Barry Bonds is going to touch that one.

That banquet had to be a lot of fun.  Can\’t you just imagine the electricity generated by a room full of disgruntled state employees? You\’d probably sitting there with 50 other people whose suggestions to save money were probably to fire you.

I checked the statute that created the program, and it deals with a different topic now – so I assume the program is now gone.  I say bring it back, if for no other reason than to let Martin \”Scissorhands\” Romero defend his crown.

R.I.P., David Halberstam

When my wife e-mailed me to tell me famous author David Halberstam had died, I kind of had the reaction that many people do when a septuagenarian passes away.  I thought it was too bad, but probably about time – thinking he had died of an illness or old age.  But when I realized he died in a car crash, I instantly felt worse.  Who knows if he had another book in him or not?

I have to confess, most of Halberstam\’s books I read were his sports books: \”Summer of \’49,\” \”Teammates,\” \”Playing for Keeps,\” and so on.  You almost feel honored that a man of such intellect stoops to write sports books that dopes like me can understand.  I did read his account of the Vietnam War, \”The Best and the Brightest,\” written based on much of his Pulitzer-Prize winning reporting on Vietnam.  His reporting as to the inner workings of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations before government records were readily available should be the gold standard of investigative reporting.

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