“Words were powerless”: A Minnesota newspaper’s response to the Lincoln assassination

On April 15, 1865, lying in a boarding house across the street from Ford's Theater, President Abraham Lincoln died, the victim of an assassin's bullet. What was a week celebrating an end to four years of bloodshed was capstoned by one last tragedy. Though not everyone felt the same way, tens of millions mourned their fallen hero, and in Minnesota as well as elsewhere, this sorrow turned into disbelief, into anger.

The Funeral of President Lincoln

This month marks the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln's assassination. Given the historical distance, though, it's hard for us to really appreciate how traumatic this event was -- especially when, in the days preceding it, there was so much to celebrate. On April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, effectively ending the Civil War. But ten days later, the colors of victory faded black as the president's hearse moved solemnly through the streets of Washington. The St. Cloud Democrat (Minnesota: April 27, 1865) ran an account of the three-mile-long procession, which I've reprinted below. As you read it, imagine for a moment what it must have been like watching the carriages move past. Though the war was over, tremulous times lied ahead. The reconstruction of a nation began with a tomb for its moral compass.

This is why I don’t take arguments about “moral and cultural decay” seriously.

There's a common trope among conservatives that we're living in an era of moral and cultural decay, which is reflected in art and performance -- Elvis Presley! Marilyn Manson! Miley Cyrus! With a nervous sweat on their brow, these moral crusaders call for censorship, suggesting it's the American thing to do. (And, I suppose in some ways it is). But, alas, this kind of outrage is nothing new -- the following comic was printed in Illinois' Rock Island Argus in 1915. Replace the statue with Beyonce and the old white aristocrat with ... the old, white, aristocratic Gov. Mike Huckabee and it's just as relevant a century later. ...

A Letter from Charles Bukowski to Robert Bly

Back in November, I wrote about two letters from Garrison Keillor and Bill Holm I found in the University of Minnesota's Robert Bly Papers. What I didn't note is that I also found one from writer Charles Bukowski. Pulling it out of the stack was a surprise -- though it shouldn't have been given Bly's stature in the literary world at the time -- and so I made a copy of it thinking Buk's may be interested. It's not as big of a literary event as the discovery of Neal Cassady's "Joan Anderson letter," but it does include an unpublished poem. ...

Four Newspaper Illustrations from 1914

A century ago, in 1914, war erupted across Europe following the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a conflict that by its end claimed 37 million casualties worldwide. It was four years of fighting that closed the 19th century and set the 20th into motion. Because its worst horrors remained to be seen (Wilfred Owen's poem "Dulce et Decorum est" captures the disillusion well), there was still hope it'd come to a speedy end. Although this small sample is not representative of every published illustration, political cartoon, and comic, it still provides some insight into the nation's feelings of that decisive year. Here we see doubt over the merits of sustaining a standing army (this being 15 years after the Spanish-American War and the nation's first foray into imperialism). We see as well both doubt and optimism for war -- and finally hope for 1915.

“Put it down the window and climb out”: Vice-President Humphrey at the University of Minnesota (1969-1970)

In March 2013, while writing my undergraduate history thesis on Hubert Humphrey’s role in the 1944 DFL merger, I spoke with University of Minnesota professor emeritus Dr. Hy Berman. As Minnesota’s “unofficial state historian,” I was excited not only to meet him but also discuss his friendship with the former vice president. One topic we spent much time on was Humphrey’s teaching at the University. All uncited quotations come from the transcript of our interview. [Excerpt]: "His office on campus was on the second floor of the Social Science Building — a corner office — and the Secret Service was still … protecting him. When they saw his office, they came to me and said, “That’s unacceptable,” because he was in a corner office, isolated. I said, “Well, that’s the biggest office. We’re going to furnish it nicely,” and they said, “We’re very unhappy.” "That evening I went to the hardware store and bought a rope ladder. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I brought it up the next day, went to the Secret Service guys and said, “This will do: Put it down the window and climb out.”"

John Lind, Minnesota’s only Populist governor

This is a follow-up to a previous article called, "Digital Humanities: Newspaper Mentions of Four MN Governors" and this short note on John Lind serves two purposes. The first is practical, the other political. (And yes, all history is political). First, there are few easily-accessible resources discussing Lind's politics. [...] Second, as Orwell said, "The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history." Having served on a Texas textbook review panel, I've seen firsthand historical revisionism. I've seen Tea Party rhetoric creep into how we write about the past: The framing that government has always been an unnecessary evil, taxes an infringement upon liberty. Yet, when it comes to workers and women's rights, public education, the social safety net -- all the things that allow people to live with dignity -- these were not gifts of the free market or God but rather the product of struggle. These came from grassroots organizing. These came from rising up against power. It came from the notion that a government of the people could be proactive and a force for good. Minnesota is full of such stories, and it's about time we've heard them.

Digital Humanities: Newspaper Mentions of Four MN Governors

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.

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.

The Colonel Surrenders in Minnesota

I'm posting here an article I originally wrote for the Kandiyohi County Historical Society newsletter titled, "The Colonel Surrenders in Minnesota" (here's the original .pdf). In it I tell the story of something that, growing up in Montevideo, I was vaguely aware of but knew nothing about. So, turning to the archives I tried to learn more about the only time (as far as I'm aware) a U.S. President visited western Minnesota. The fact that it happened to be Teddy Roosevelt just as he was planning his political comeback should be no surprise. Two years later, in 1912, the state rewarded Roosevelt's efforts with its 12 electoral votes. Radical politics were nothing new to the western part of the state -- in fact, the seventh district's first congressman was a member of the Populist Party and, later, represented by the prohibitionist Andrew J. Volstead. (It's forgotten now, but prohibition was a progressive movement that advocated for women's suffrage and workers' rights among other things). Because of this and the fact that the major rails to the Twin Cities ran through the region, it was not uncommon for satellite cities like Willmar to receive its fair share of speakers. Everyone from William Jennings Bryan (source) to Eugene V. Debs (source) and "Big Bill" Haywood (source) at one point or another visited the city. As I've written elsewhere, this region was later a hotbed for the Farmer-Labor Association. It was Appleton, for example, that Farmer-Labor Party Governor Elmer Benson called home.