Digital Humanities: Newspaper Mentions of Four MN Governors

Minnesota governors David Clough John Lind Samuel Van Sant John Johnson

Clockwise from top-left: David M. Clough, John Lind, Samuel R. Van Sant, John A. Johnson.

As I’ve written elsewhere, given my time at the Initiative, I’ve developed an interest in Big Data analysis and how this methodology can be applied to history (“the digital humanities”). Specifically, as collections become digitized, the sheer volume of resources ought to inspire historians to find new ways to engage and manage information. While the result will only be as good as the analysis, it has the potential to reveal trends that otherwise may be implied but not obvious.

The following tracks the state newspaper mentions of particular keywords — in this case, names — of four Minnesota governors: David M. Clough, John Lind, Samuel R. Van Sant, and John A. Johnson. For example, every instance in which “John” and “Lind” appear within five words of one another on a Minnesota newspaper page, that page is counted. Searching for variations of how these individuals were addressed (such as “Governor Van Sant” rather than “Samuel Van Sant” or “S.R. Van Sant”) yield different counts but the overall trends are the same.

(Note: Prior to 1962, Minnesota’s governors served two-year terms).


Figure: This graph represents the total counts per year of particular keyword usage in 28 Minnesota newspapers (~330,000 scanned pages). Keywords include “Governor Clough”, “John Lind”, “Governor Van Sant”, and “Governor Johnson.” Variations of these keywords are not included. Data was manually collected from the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America archives.

I know there’s a lot of history I’m leaving out, and I’m sorry I’m not delving into the full history of the progressive era in Minnesota, but at a glance, a few things are apparent:

(1) Mentions are more likely to occur in an election year than in a non-election year. The only instances in which the latter supersedes the former is during the governor’s first year in office. Otherwise, non-election years tend to trail, and this is true even when there are major events such as when Johnson died in office (1909). The exception to this is Lind whose 1899 totals were only slightly better than in the year between his two gubernatorial campaigns (1897).

(2) The prominence of these individuals in state newspapers corresponds strictly to their time in office. The exception to this is again Lind who, coincidentally, served the fewest terms (one). This may be due to the fact that, compared to the others, only Lind had a political career outside of the state legislature, having served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1887-1893 and later 1903-1905. The spikes one sees afterward mark particular events: In 1910 it was widely-speculated that he would run for governor again (he didn’t) and in 1913, Lind’s friend, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, appointed Lind an emissary to Mexico during that country’s revolution.

(3) An individual’s prominence in state newspapers reached its highest point during their first reelection campaign. This observation, though, is a little problematic as only Governor Johnson was elected to a third term — even so it is fascinating that this is still the case when, in 1908, Johnson also ran for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. Lind’s uniqueness makes sense given his being endorsed by the Democratic, Populist, and Silver Republican Parties at the height of the Populist Movement in Minnesota (1896-1898). Once this subsided, so too did his prominence (Lind was the state’s first and only Populist governor).

(4) There’s something going on with John Lind. Although I’ve already noted his exceptionalism, it’s something that, without this graph, would be otherwise unapparent. Right now I’m in the process of writing an article on Lind that will (hopefully) shed light on his uniqueness. Subscribe and keep an eye out for it.

Is there anything else that stands out? Any other research questions from this period you’d like me to look into? Let me know in the comments!

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The Atlanta Neuroethics Consortium: Neuro-Interventions and the Law

Joshua Preston:

This is my “Voices in Bioethics” write-up of last month’s Atlanta Neuroethics Consortium. It was my first foray into the law and neuroscience world — and I loved it. What I don’t talk about is my experience using (great!) or why I missed the Sunday panel.

With my flight leaving Sunday evening, I spent the morning walking to the Carter Presidential Library but gave up when I realized I’d never make it. Compensated by visiting the Martin Luther King Historic Site. Very good.

Originally posted on :

by Joshua Preston 

Recently, I attended the Atlanta Neuroethics Consortium’s (ANEC) conference on Neuro-Interventions and the Law: Regulating Human Mental Capacity (September 12-14). Hosted by Professor Dr. Nicole Vincent, it was my first foray into the “neurolaw” world. Most of the attendees and keynote speakers were pulled from the MacArthur Foundation’s Law and Neuroscience Research Network, and because of this, I was impressed by the cross-disciplinary representation. The conference included experts in the biological sciences and psychiatry as well as legal scholars and practicing judges. Additionally, I must add, it was free, which is the best price.

The opening keynote from Vincent laid out the major topics that would be explored over the next three days. In it she outlined her taxonomy of the relationship between responsibility and mental capacity (i.e., how does an individual’s cognitive abilities affect our expectations of them?). Each panel addressed…

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The Digital Humanities and Word Clouds

Ever since I joined the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law, I’ve had a growing interest in big data analysis. With so much information being digitized — whether it’s criminal records, government documents, or historical archives —  researchers can engage with old resources in new ways and ask questions on scales previously unimaginable. Though I’m not too vocal about it here (yet), right now I’m working to apply what I’ve learned at the Initiative to the Library of Congress’ “Chronicling America” archives. This crossing of fields, for those who are curious, is called the “Digital Humanities.” (If you’d like to know more, I suggest checking out the historian Dan Cohen’s blog. Fred Gibbs also has a helpful introduction to historical data analysis here).

I won’t reveal any of my graphics here (I’m saving them for a future post), but here’s an example of the Digital Humanities that everyone’s familiar with: Word clouds. Technically, these were possible before the digitization of famous works, but it’s the kind of work that required slave labor teaching assistants. The following I put together in a few minutes using Project Gutenberg and Wordle.

This is Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street (1920):

Main Street Sinclair Lewis Word Cloud

Lewis’ Babbitt (1920):
Babbitt Sinclair Lewis Word CloudThomas Paine‘s entire collected writings:
Complete Writings Thomas Paine Word Cloud My personal diaries (May 2008 to May 2012):

Preston Journals Word Cloud

Now, even though all of this big data talk is just an excuse for me to post word clouds, I see in each of these one thing: Opportunity. Imagine doing this same work with thousands of books and newspapers. Imagine tracking keywords across time to measure the political trends of in a community (or state or country). We can! We are!

Every researcher ought to be salivating.

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Governor Floyd B. Olson on Law School Debt

Governor Floyd B. Olson and President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Washington, DC.

Governor Floyd B. Olson and President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Washington, DC.

While reading Floyd Bjornsterne Olson: Minnesota’s Greatest Liberal Governor (1937), a collection of speeches and remembrances published after Olson’s death, I came across the following. As I prepare for the LSAT, I’ve received thousands of tips on what to do before, during, and immediately after law school, but none of it has been as useful as the following. Young lawyers: Take note.

After working a series of odd jobs around the country, in 1913, at the age of 20, Olson returned to Minneapolis and attended night-classes at the Northwestern College of Law (now the William Mitchell College of Law). Two years later he graduated and passed the bar exam. But after doing so, he was sued by his law school over unpaid tuition fees. The trial was recounted by Joseph Poirier, a college friend and later Minneapolis Municipal Judge (1937-1942):

… I recall that one of the first lawsuits Floyd tried was one in which he was a defendant. He was sued by [the] law school for an alleged unpaid balance on his tuition fee. He defended his own case, and I well recall his defense, in which he was Exhibit One as well as defendant. His argument was: “I know nothing about law, have learned nothing; and while I have been admitted to practice, you can readily see that I am no lawyer. My ignorance of the law, and the way I try this case are clear proofs that I have received nothing by reason of my alleged instruction at this school.” And, strange to say, the jury found for him. (32)

I was unable to find the annual tuition cost at Northwesten Law, but I do know it cost $160 (plus a $10 fee) to attend the University of Pennsylvania’s Law School at that time, which would be ~$4,000 in today’s dollars. A century later, according to the American Bar Association, the average debt for private law school graduates is $125,000 — so maybe Floyd’s on to something here.

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Gillian Bennett & Physician-Assisted Suicide

Joshua Preston:

Did you know that you don’t have a constitutional right to die and physician-assisted suicide is legal in only five states? Here’s my latest article for Columbia’s Voices in Bioethics. In it I discuss the death of Gillian Bennett and euthanasia laws in both Canada and the United States.

Originally posted on :

by Joshua Preston 

“I want out before the day when I can no longer assess my situation,” wrote Gillian Bennett, a Vancouver woman, in an open letter to be published after her death. “[I] will be physically alive but there will be no one inside.” Addressing the dementia she had been living with for three years: “[M]uch faster now, I am turning into a vegetable … Dementia gives no quarter and admits no bargaining.” So, dragging a mattress to her favorite spot, on August 18, 2014, Bennett, age 83, self-administered a lethal dose of barbiturates and passed with her husband holding her hand.

In Canada, physician-assisted suicide (PAS) is illegal, leaving individuals with degenerative illnesses to make these decisions on their one without the resources available to most hospitals. As Bennett observed, if she wished to resist becoming a vegetable, this was her only option –…

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On women “mother-naked before long mirrors”: Dorothy Parker’s list of literary cliches to avoid

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)

Recently I bought a copy of The Portable Dorothy Parker (Penguin Books, 1973) and am now reveling in her genius and wit. For those unfamiliar with Parker (1893-1967), she was a writer and columnist whose book reviews frequently appeared in The New Yorker (1927-1933) and Esquire (1957-1962). In the few reviews I’ve written, I often feel compelled to be generous (but not misleading) and hope someday to have the space and audience to engage in Parker-level snark. Someday.

Although the major literary figures of the period strut through her reviews, it was not uncommon for the book to appear almost as a relevant afterthought to some rant on the state of literature. One example of this comes from a February 1959 review of Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Updike’s The Poorhouse Fair (and if you’re wondering: she liked both). In it she announces the three literary cliches writers ought to avoid. It’s worth quoting in full:

I should like to issue a short, stiff statement, to be notarized if considered necessary, that I am through and done with novels containing scenes in which young ladies stand mother-naked before long mirrors, and evaluate, always favorably, their unveiled surfaces. Further, I will have no more of books in which various characters tell their dreams; tell, with prodigious extension of memory and ruthless courtesy to details, dreams which, unlike yours and mine, have to do with the plot of the piece. And finally and forever, I am come to the parting of the ways from works where Nature lore invades the telling of the tale. When the author gives me scene of wild young passion, then I can no longer slog through the immediate follow-up of a tender description of the bending of wheat in the breeze, nor yet of a report on the intricate delicacies of fern fronds, nor again of the fact that the wild jonquils are thicker than ever this year. Yes, and I will have no more of accounts of the behavior of the undersides of leaves at the approach of a shower. I realize that all this will cut down my reading drastically, nevertheless — There!

I laughed when I came across this because not only do I see these often, but they’re something I — gasp — occasionally engage in. In particular, I’ll freely admit I’m guilty of placing women in front of mirrors and droning on and on about smooth skin and lovely curves and precious navals.* But then again, unlike others, I don’t pretend I’m either elegant or profound.

What I find most distressing about “mirror scenes” is the accompanying pontification on the female form in all of its trials and triumphs. This is when you can tell the writer’s a man. Oh, she’s beautiful (check!) and she’s self-conscious and fragile because of a scar on her thigh (check!) but she’s also a tough, type-A personality because of the way she describes how she got those sweet muscles (check!).** This female psychologizing is an easy “out” instead of placing one’s character into situations where these qualities are revealed through actions. It’s uncreative, and by aspiring for sentimentality it reduces a character to bullet points.

So stop it.

*For the record: I did it last week. The character was a middle-aged, female hedgehog unhappy with her marriage. Is that at least a little better?
**Could you ever imagine a scene like this involving a man? “Studying myself in my full-body mirror, my attention went straight to my smooth, toned legs. I never forget leg day. Because that’s the kind of person I am, reader.”
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Other Charity Challenges That Didn’t Catch On

Ice bucket

This is an ice bucket.

By now, I’m sure your Facebook feed has been overrun with videos of friends and people-you forgot-were-friends participating in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. According to their own estimates, as of September 11, 2014, the ALS Association’s raised over $112 million dollars, which is more than four times their annual budget. That’s pretty awesome and it’s going to do a lot of good.

Much like a straight-to-DVD film with a title practically indistinguishable from a summer blockbuster, though, (I’m looking at you Transmorphers), the ALSA’s success has not escaped imitation. It’s unlikely you’ll see President Bush or Lady Gaga participating in any of the following, but they’re worth suggesting. Here are the other charity challenges that didn’t quite catch on.

Special thanks to those who looked this over and to Amanda G. who comforted me when both McSweeney’s and College Humor rejected this article.

The Sierra Club “Save Our Pollinators” challenge. Nominees have to poke a hive and donate $5 for every bee sting. Donate double if you wimp out and use an EpiPen.

The Red Cross “Give Until You Drop” Challenge. Nominees have to donate 5 pints of blood and see how many steps they can take before toppling over.

The Oregon History Society’s “Oregon Trail” challenge. One third of nominees have to die from dysentery. No one is allowed to live past age 45.

The Planned Parenthood “Safe Sex” challenge. Please, no videos.

The Wal-Mart Local Giving “Big Family” challenge. Nominees have to report all suspicious union activity to their supervisor. Also, you have to wear a silly vest. All employees are nominated.

The Green Peace “Save the Whales” challenge. Nominees have to secretly board a Japanese whaling vessel and destroy it from the inside. Nominees are discouraged from violating international law.

The American Disability Association’s “Crawl a Mile in Their Shoes” challenge. Nominees have to crawl one mile and nobody is allowed to be offended because it’s for a good cause so there.

The Goodwill “$20 in Your Pocket” challenge. Middle-class twenty-somethings have to put that $20 in the donation jar … and then leave. No, that jacket doesn’t look good on you. Don’t sing. Just walk away, man.

The Federal Government’s “Civic Engagement” challenge. Nominees have to show up on Election Day to vote. Please! The United States is globally ranked 59th in voter turnout! We shouldn’t have to challenge you to do this!

The Humility Foundation’s “Impossible” challenge. Nominees have to donate an appropriate amount of money to a charity of their choice and not brag about it on social media. They also have to share their accomplishing this challenge without violating its central precept. Your move.

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