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Black Friday 1889: The Johnstown Flood

Neatorama is proud to bring you a guest post from history buff and Neatoramanaut WTM, who wishes to remain otherwise anonymous.

At the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, there was found on the Midway an interactive ‘scenograph’ exhibit of something called the “Johnstown Flood”. Similar exhibits concerning this “Johnstown Flood” would later be found at Coney Island in New York and the Atlantic Boardwalk. All were immensely popular with the viewing (and paying) public for reasons that will be made clear.

In 1926, there was released a film by the name of The Johnstown Flood, it being the type of drama termed a ‘potboiler’ at the time. From the movie poster below, one can easily deduce that the Johnstown Flood was some sort of epic disaster involving a flood, prominent enough to warrant an exposition midway exhibit and a film.

And in a scene found in the 1931 film Public Enemy, purported to take place in 1909, there is a sign on a wall that states, "Don't Spit ON THE FLOOR Remember the JOHNSTOWN FLOOD!" This sign or facsimile was typically employed in early 20th century restaurants, businesses, and movie theaters, on the silver screen during intermission in theaters and on the walls in other venues, as a gentle reminder in an age when many men chewed tobacco and would spit the results indiscriminately. (A similar reminder of the period was, ‘Do not expect to rate as a gentleman if you expectorate on the floor.’) But what exactly was this ‘Johnstown Flood’ in which there was such interest, especially in films, and why and how did it become such a cultural phenomenon?

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Why We Should Bring Back the Art of Toasting

Raising your glass in a toast was common from ancient Greece to fairly recently, but appears to have fallen out of favor in the 21st century, outside of weddings. The group act of drinking in unison with a common thought is a way of bonding, of communicating a sentiment, and a ritual that should be brought back. To understand the reasons why, we need to look at the history of the toast. It has gone through a few changes while keeping the same basic form.

Indeed, amongst both the Greeks and Romans, toasting could not only serve as a declaration of well wishes (and an excuse for copious drinking!), but also a provocation — a challenge. Being able to hold one’s liquor was considered a form of toughness and discipline, and a night of toasting surely tested a man’s capaciousness. Just as the Greeks who pledged their drinks to the gods expected blessings in return for their sacrifice, toasts made to one’s fellow mortals were expected to be reciprocated. One toast would beget another, and back and forth the tributes went. With each, the vessel would have to be entirely drained of its intoxicating contents; as we’ll see, merely sipping one’s drink after a toast is a modern refinement. Thus, offering a toast was sometimes a way of throwing down the gauntlet — an invitation to competition and a kind of duel; could the others match you cup for cup? Unsurprisingly, a night of toasting frequently found participants passed out in a stupor by its end.

In later eras, toasting did not automatically mean drinking more than you should. The history of toasting is followed by an elegant argument for reviving the custom at The Art of Manliness.  -Thanks, Tim!

America’s Jack the Ripper and the Downfall of Eliot Ness

Neatorama is proud to bring you a guest post from history buff and Neatoramanaut WTM, who wishes to remain otherwise anonymous.

All who have seen The Untouchables television series, 1959-1963, and/or the 1987 film of the same name should certainly be familiar with the character of Eliot Ness. When one views these images of Eliot Ness, the first from the 1960’s television series and the second from the 1987 film, what does one see?

The typical response would probably be that the ‘legendary’ Eliot Ness was an alpha-male, handsome, sexy, hard as nails, cold as ice, fearless, dedicated, incorruptible, and uncompromising – an ‘untouchable’ Supercop as it were. As is so often the case, however, reality falls short of legend, and in the case of Eliot Ness, it falls quite short.

The public perception of Eliot Ness is that he was Supercop, the man who took down Al Capone and battled organized crime quite successfully during the 1930’s, as seen weekly in The Untouchables television series. The stark reality is that Eliot Ness was a flawed hero who was eventually to become a tragic figure, ending his days as an impoverished alcoholic. The story of his triumphs and downfall is a remarkable one that may be unprecedented in American history and it serves as a cautionary tale for those skeptical of Proverbs 16:18. Legends die hard, but when they do…

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An Illustrated Look at the Terlingua Chili Cook-off

The town of Terlingua, Texas, has been hosting a chili cook-off for over 50 years now. In a state where chili cook-offs are thick as thieves, this one is the biggie, and it comes with a ton of history. The founders split into rival cook-offs (now held at the same time), the rules were established, and there were controversies along the way.

Terlingua, Texas. It’s the Super Bowl of chili cook-offs. You can’t compete unless you’ve gotten yourself qualified by winning smaller competitions, and you have to show picture ID on account of what happened in 2003. A fella by the name of Don Eastep, a Yankee no less, snuck into the proceedings posing as his brother, who’d qualified but couldn’t attend.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, take a listen to this. Picture a desert scene with pickup trucks and campers and about a hundred folks in straw hats and aprons cooking chili on camp stoves. Now, our friend here, he’d set up his cooking area, but he wasn’t cooking. He was strolling around sipping a koozie-clad cold one and chitchatting. He’d eventually ask folks for a taste of their chili in a Styrofoam cup, and most of the cooks obliged. He took those samples and dumped them into his own pot. He got enough to enter the contest. And he won. Yep. He won the whole dang deal.

That certainly wasn't the first, or the last spectacular controversy at the Terlingua Chili Cook-off. Matthew Diffee attended the 50th Terlingua Chili Cook-off in 2016 and brings us a condensed but lavishly illustrated explanation and history of Texas' premiere chili event at Texas Monthly. -Thanks, Walter!

(Image credit Matthew Diffee)

PS: If you want a deep dive into the founding and first split of the Terlingua Chili Cook-off, here is the story as it happened, from 1967, part one and part two.

The Best Western Movies Ever Made

Hollywood doesn't make Westerns the way they used to. In fact, they don't make many Westerns at all in the 21st century. They are expensive, unfamiliar to younger audiences, and require a certain suspension of disbelief about history. Yet we have hundreds, if not thousands, of old Westerns we can select to watch in our leisure time. Which ones are worth the effort? You might want to check out a list of 25 movies at The Art of Manliness called The Best Western Movies Ever Made, with a description of each one. I bet you haven't seen them all!  -Thanks, Tim!

The Gun That Made the Twenties Roar

Neatorama is proud to bring you a guest post from history buff and Neatoramanaut WTM, who wishes to remain otherwise anonymous.

In the United States, the decade of the 1920’s, aka the ‘Roaring Twenties’, was the time of the Jazz Age, Art Deco, flappers, the Charleston, the Scopes Monkey Trial, a runaway bull stock market, birth of the NFL, Babe Ruth, first widespread use of the automobile, the beginning of airline aviation, Prohibition, bootleg liquor, Al Capone, speakeasies, gangsters, Eliot Ness and the Untouchables, and what was perhaps the single most iconic object of that era – the Thompson Submachine Gun (TSMG).

The story of the TSMG is a complex blend of patriotism, dreams, intrigue, misguided enthusiasm, greed, disappointment, questionable business practices, and significant unintended consequences. It covers only a short span of American history, from 1920 to 1945, but has had a lasting impact on American culture. It would be hard for anyone today to imagine the Roaring Twenties without a ‘Tommy Gun’ blazing away from the passenger windows of a black sedan or police car on some city street, as seen in the 1960’s TV series, The Untouchables.

No other firearm has ever captured the public imagination so thoroughly, both at the height of its notoriety and for decades afterwards, as has the TSMG. Even today, nearly 100 years after its introduction, the TSMG is still the iconic submachine gun and ‘gangster gun’. Its role in Roaring Twenties and Threadbare Thirties gangland violence made it infamous despite the fact that it was originally intended for use “On The Side of Law and Order” and was actually more commonly found in the hands of lawmen than criminals during that time. In 1926, Colliers magazine described the TSMG as a “diabolical engine of death” and the attendant negative publicity kept the TSMG from being adopted as a military weapon until it was almost too late.

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The Forgotten Storm

1925 Tri-State Tornado Damage, NOAA Archives

Neatorama is proud to bring you a guest post from history buff and Neatoramanaut WTM, who wishes to remain otherwise anonymous.

In the early afternoon of March 18, 1925, there occurred over the Ozark Mountains of Missouri a mysterious weather phenomenon that had never before been observed and has not been observed since, this being the genesis of a one-of-a-kind (thus far) monster of a storm that was to become known as the Tri-State Tornado.

It was the very end of winter, but temperatures in Missouri were unusually warm for mid-March, a balmy 65 degrees. Although each spring brought the threat of tornadoes to Tornado Alley, severe weather usually wasn’t a concern at this latitude until May, and after all, it was technically still winter. No one in the immediate area knew it, but a confluence of three independent weather systems had recently taken place overhead, an event that was soon to have the severest of ramifications. A low-pressure cyclone from Canada had brought cool dry air, a warm front drawn from the Gulf of Mexico by this low-pressure cyclone had brought warm moist air, and another warm front drawn from the desert southwest had brought warm dry air.

The confluence of the three weather systems intensified the cyclone which had by then centered over the midwest, in which then developed unseasonable squall lines of severe thunderstorms, among them a massive type of mesocyclonic (rotating core) thunderstorm known as a supercell. Supercell thunderstorms are one of nature’s danger signals, like rattles on a rattlesnake, for they invariably produce severe weather such as torrential rain, golfball-to-grapefruit-sized hail, hurricane-force downbursts – and tornadoes. One ignores a supercell thunderstorm at one’s own peril, as thousands of people across three states were about to discover.

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