Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Proper Seat

Some kids dream about becoming an astronaut or a ballerina when they grow up, or, perhaps President of the United States. My dream was horses.

I loved them. Whenever I got a chance, I rode. Not many in our circle of acquaintances owned horses, so my experiences were limited to the rare treat of an afternoon ride with a friend or family member who actually happened to have a pony or gelding out back. But I persisted, attending a handful of horsemanship camps as a teen and using the next best source of information available to me, World Book Encyclopedia, to brush up my knowledge on various riding styles.

I always rode Western. If I wasn’t exactly a proficient rider, I was nevertheless comfortable enough with the saddle and its trappings to feel confident that I could keep my seat. My Western riding career reached its apex during a cattle drive that put these tenuous skills to the test. My horse and I leaped ditches, ran across meadows, and chased renegade cows back into the herd. I loved it.

But it wasn’t quite enough. I didn’t just want to ride a horse, I wanted to look good doing it. And for that, I needed to learn English riding.

Ah, English riding. What could be more elegant than sitting astride a horse, back perfectly upright, balancing effortless poise and a dash of glamour? There is a reason that dressage and not calf roping is an Olympic sport. Both require exceptional skill and horsemanship, but only dressage is beautiful to look at.

Which is why, on a cold night in November, I hoofed it down to a local riding academy and began my first English riding lessons. The saddle felt tiny, as I knew it would.  On a whim, I’d talked a friend into taking a polo class with me the previous summer, and the English saddles had seemed shockingly inadequate to the task of keeping us on the horse while we galloped up and down the field, trying desperately to connect the mallet to the ball and move it in the right direction. I discovered that playing polo before really knowing how to ride English was akin to tackling calculus before getting a grasp on long division.

The placid old gelding and I circled the arena, never moving faster than a plodding walk. I took advantage of the slow pace to check my posture. Yes, I was sitting nicely. 

The old Western habits died hard, however. I tried to turn my horse, Monkey Bread, by neck reining him. The instructor quickly corrected me, and I spent the rest of the lesson trying to habituate myself into using the English style of pulling back on the reign and pressing against the horse with my leg. It wasn’t exactly moving cattle, but it was, I hoped, moving me towards my goal of presenting a tolerable mimicry of Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary.   

I head back in another week for my next lesson. Maybe this time we’ll break out a walk and I can try posting, followed by a nice cup of afternoon tea.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Vote Early, Vote Often

 On Tuesday night, I spent a good 45 minutes waiting in line to vote. Since cell phones are prohibited in polling places, it was a good time to get some thinking done and mull over the electoral process.

It struck me that while more and more of our daily lives can be conducted online (shopping for gifts, paying bills, buying groceries, renting movies…even renewing library books), voting is one of the few activities in American culture that still must be done in person. That was why, on that dark and chilly evening, I put on a pair of sneakers, bundled up in my winter coat and hat, and walked 10 minutes up the street to a local elementary school to cast my vote.

Walking to the polling place felt a bit old-fashioned, yet somehow fitting. Voting is a communal activity, and I didn’t want to hide behind my car or my cell phone. When I arrived, I saw more of my neighbors than I had ever had before. Old, young, black, white, Asian. Men and women, union members and office workers, young twentysomethings in sweats and families bringing their kids. It was a melting pot in microcosm, it was Ellis Island on the local level.

Of course, voting hasn’t always been like this, and as a woman, I am very aware that it took decades of dedicated and pioneering effort to extend suffrage to both genders.

In fact, many of the first states to allow women to vote were Western states, where women were “pioneers” on many levels! The territory of Wyoming gave women voting rights in 1869 (I read somewhere that this was done to create better public order and curb the effects of too many rough and tumble men participating in the political process). In fact, when Wyoming became a state in 1890, it insisted on retaining suffrage for women.

Utah’s move to support women’s suffrage in 1870 is said to have been part of a PR campaign to counter perceptions of Mormonism as anti-female. Women’s voting rights there were later repealed under the Edmunds–Tucker Act, but by the time Utah became a state in 1896, women had won back their right to vote.

Montana was also an early adopter of female suffrage, giving women the right to vote in 1914.  Montana then became the first state to elect a woman to Congress. Jeanette Rankin won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1917, at the age of 36. That’s a pretty amazing accomplishment, considering that the United States did not amend its Constitution to give women the right to vote until 1920. It really makes you wonder what her first day on the job was like when she got to Washington.

Note: New Jersey is actually the first state where women had full voting rights. After the Revolutionary War, eligibility to vote was determined by property ownership, not gender. In 1790, state law was amended to specifically state that women had the right to suffrage. In 1807, these privileges were revoked by the New Jersey state legislature.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Kevin Corcoran's Gun, and Other Anachronisms

I've been watching the BBC America series Copper with great interest, partly because I really miss Deadwood, and partly because I'm a bit of a Civil War buff, especially after reading Tony Horwitz's hilarious and insightful Confederates in the Attic.

For those not familiar with the series, it centers around the misadventures of Irish-American cop Kevin Corcoran, a veteran of the Union Army who is now serving as a police detective in 1864 New York City. A major premise of the plotline, and one the fuels the numerous gunfights and physical altercations that Kevin finds himself embroiled in, is the rough and tumble justice of the notorious Five Points neighborhood. As the show would have it, New York's finest had a "shoot first, don't ask questions" mode of operation that made them little better than the criminals they were meant to neutralize.

Which begs the question - just what was the day-to-day operation of NYPD like in the 1860s? I decided to do some digging.

Snafu #1 - Most Police Officers Didn't Have Guns in the 1860s

My forays into the history of the American West naturally brought me into the history of firearms in the United States. I couldn't study the West without eventually studying guns, too. Kevin Corcoran's revolver gets quite a lot of screen time, and most of the other coppers are armed with handguns as well.

However, in the 1860s, cops and guns didn't necessarily go hand in hand. At this point in time, American police departments did not issue firearms to their members. Cops who elected to carry a gun most likely paid for it out of their own pocket. Colt, in fact, was marketing moderately-priced handguns specifically towards police officers in the 1870s. The New York City police department did not require officers to carry guns until 1887. Patrolmen were armed with nightsticks.

So while it's possible ol' Corky could have carried a gun, either by buying his own, or by surreptitiously hanging on to one issued from his Army days, the premise is a little sketchy. I suppose nightsticks just wouldn't create the same dramatic effect.

Snafu #2 - New York City Cops Actually Had a Rulebook 

The premise that law enforcement was fast and loose and that very little procedural precedent was in place is another area where the BBC has taken liberties with the facts. New York City actually has one of the longest histories of community policing anywhere in the United States, dating all the way back to 1625 when the area was a Dutch colony. In those days, law enforcement officers patrolled the settlement and were charged with keeping the peace, settling disputes, and warning settlers of fire - a real danger in days when most buildings were made of wood, and fire departments lay decades in the future. 

The New York City Police Department proper was founded in 1845. In that same year, the first Police Chief issued a booklet titled "Rules and Regulations of the Day and Night Police of the City of New York With Instructions as to the Legal Powers and Duties of Policemen."

There is the argument that rules are not always followed, and I'll buy that regulations are open to manipulation in any era to serve individual and political ends. But the idea that there were no rules for the police in 1864 simply isn't true.

Snafu #3 - NYPD Didn't Have Detectives in 1864

The Detective Bureau didn't exist until 1882. There were undercover officers, but their function was more to deter petty crime rather than solve major cases.  No Detective Bureau, no Detective Corcoran. You'd think someone at BBC would have checked that before giving the program lead a title that he couldn't have held.

But wait, it's a television show, not a documentary! True. However, the most successful historical dramas know the world they are operating in, and engage with it authentically. Not so they can recreate it, but so they can make informed choices about how their characters would live, move, and breathe in that alternate time and place. The scenes of Elizabeth Haverford watching the Booth Brothers perform Julius Caesar (dramatically intercut with a race to stop a plot to burn NYC to the ground) are fantastic and powerful - and based on a actual historic performance by the Booths in New York in 1864. The plot to burn New York is also "based on a true story."

In short, when writers do their homework, it shows. When they don't, that is obvious as well.

Now, who wants to bring me on as a historical consultant on their program?

PS Some information contained in this post is based on my own original research. For specifics related to the history of the New York City police department, I went to their own website, which has some wonderful data on the history of the force.  


Thursday, August 9, 2012

Where I've Been: A Writing Roundup

Photo by Penny Shaut.

 Howdy folks! Quite a lot has happened since last summer's cattle drive. I've moved, gotten married, adopted a cat (and a dog), and yes, I've been writing. Here is a quick rundown of links to recent articles and blog posts.

Roadtripping With the King James Bible

During my famous road trip of 2010, which was the instigation for this blog, I carried along a Victorian-era copy of the King James Bible. I wanted a book that had actually existed during the heyday of the American West, and after a lot of searching, I finally found one. I wrote about my "heirloom" for Manifold Greatness, a blog that correlates to an NEH-sponsored exhibition on the history and cultural impact of the King James Bible.

Buck Taylor, the Original Cowboy Hero 

The figure of Buck Taylor, one of the stars of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, continues to intrigue me long after I returned from the West. I did a quick post on Buck for my friend Ken Ackerman's blog, Viral History.

The Reno Rodeo Cattle Drive

This piece originally appeared in the print edition of American Cowboy magazine. I spent five days driving cattle through the Nevada desert, listening to coyotes howl at night and keeping an eye out for rattlesnakes during the day. It was fantastic!

Food from the Age of Shakespeare

I like cooking and eating just as much as I enjoy history and pop culture. When I got a chance to blend the two in an article for Smithsonian, I couldn't wait! This article chronicles my experiences preparing 17th-century recipes, which have no measurements, cooking times, or temperatures. Amazingly, they were edible.