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7 Facts About Bertha Knight Landes, First Female Mayor of a Major American City

Bertha Knight Landes was Seattle’s first and only (so far) female mayor—and the first woman elected mayor of a major American city. Read on for seven facts about this determined, no-nonsense early city leader.

1. A MOTHER AND HOUSEWIFE, SHE FIRST ENTERED THE PUBLIC SPHERE THROUGH WOMEN’S CLUBS.

Born in 1868 as the youngest of nine children, Bertha Knight grew up in Massachusetts. She studied history and political science at the University of Indiana, graduating with her bachelor’s degree in 1891. After a few years as a teacher, she married a fellow Indiana student, Henry Landes, who became a professor of geology, prompting a move to Seattle when he secured a job at the University of Washington. In Seattle, Bertha Knight Landes gave birth to three children; the oldest, Katherine, died at age nine, while a son, Roger, did not survive infancy. A second son, Kenneth, came along later, and the family also adopted a daughter named Viola.

Landes first entered the civic arena through her involvement in women’s clubs. Popularized in the years following the Civil War, these clubs were initially organized to provide women with avenues for self-improvement and cultural opportunities. By the late 19th century, they had also become centers of political action for women who, otherwise generally kept out of politics, desired a method of civic engagement. Clubs lobbied for temperance, labor regulations, educational reform, improved public health, and other progressive causes.

Landes became heavily involved in club life after moving to Seattle. She was a charter member of a group called the Sunset Club and was actively involved in the Women’s University Club. In 1906, she joined the Women’s Century Club, which had been founded 15 years earlier by prominent suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt. From 1918 to 1920, Landes served as the club’s president, mobilizing its resources and members to assist the war effort after the U.S. entered World War I. She organized five Red Cross auxiliaries and then, feeling she could do more, helped found the Washington Minute Women, a group that raised money to support soldiers and their families.

Landes had, by this point, become a prominent figure in Seattle civic affairs. From 1920 to 1922, she served as president of the Seattle Federation of Women's Clubs, and during that tenure, she planned a week-long economic showcase for Washington manufacturers that would be run by her and staffed by over a thousand clubwomen. The successful Women’s Educational Exhibit for Washington Manufacturers brought Landes to the attention of local businessmen and political leaders, and later in 1921, when Mayor Hugh Caldwell created a five-member commission to tackle Seattle’s unemployment problem, he appointed Landes as the solitary female member.

Landes so impressed her fellow commission members that one suggested she run for city council, insisting, “We need a woman in the city council, a woman of your type.” Landes took him at his word, and in 1922 ran her own campaign for a council seat with the help of four fellow clubwomen. While existing Seattle politicians worked within a political machine that ran on graft and favors, Landes staffed her 1922 campaign entirely with political amateurs and kept to a tight budget, avoiding “entangling alliances” with interest groups. She wanted to maintain “clean hands” amidst rampant political corruption, presenting herself as a reformer who would work to stop illegal gambling and foster a more upright police force. She succeeded, winning 80% of the vote, more than any previous candidate for Seattle’s city council. A second councilor elected in that race was another woman, Kathryn Miracle, and the two became the first women to serve on the Seattle City Council.

2. SHE WANTED CHANGE, BUT SHE WAS A REALIST.

As one of her first acts on city council, Landes presented an ordinance to close Seattle’s taxi dance halls. At such establishments, working-class women called “taxi dancers” would dance with men for money, often while encouraging the men to buy alcohol. (These women occasionally also sold sex.) Bertha Landes looked at dance halls and saw dens of vice, but for many working-class women, they offered the best way to put food on the table. Charging 10 cents a dance, a woman could make $4 or $5 a night at the dance hall, while a week of factory work earned her less than $14. Several taxi dancers met with Landes in her home, explaining that their work in the dance halls was an economic necessity. Their appeal, combined with strong opposition from other members of city council, led Landes to alter her law so that it would regulate the dance halls rather than shutter them.

Passed in 1923, Landes’s ordinance mandated that dance halls obtain licenses, hire female chaperones, not allow indecent acts, and maintain bright lighting [PDF]. Landes was lambasted in public hearings and even received death threats for her crusade against the halls, but managed to push regulation through an unfriendly city council anyway. She was proud of the ordinance, which curbed the worst of dance hall excess while allowing women to keep their jobs.

Landes was a realist, not a radical. She wrote in Collier’s in 1929, “I believe in a sane, wise and reasonable enforcement of any law, including the prohibition law, and in the preservation of public decency.” She was a practical politician, noting the “necessity for compromise in small things in the hope of providing for greater ones.” But while Landes understood that vice would never be entirely banished from Seattle, she had little patience for those who let it run rampant.

3. SHE MADE A SPLASH AS ACTING MAYOR.

In June 1924, Landes was elected president of the city council, and when Seattle’s mayor, Edwin J. Brown, left town later that month to attend the Democratic National Convention in New York City, she became acting mayor. By this time, Seattle was home to a corrupt police force that winked at Prohibition, and was a haven for illegal behavior. Henry A. Chadwick of the Argus newspaper wrote in November 1923 that the town was a legal free-for-all: “Saloons, in the guise of soft drink places, started up on every hand. Lewd women rented apartments and did a big business selling booze … Seattle has become … so rotten that it stinks.” Bertha Landes was not having it.

Shortly before Landes took over as acting mayor, the city’s police chief, William B. Severyns, argued to journalists that lax enforcement of prohibition, gambling, and prostitution laws was not his fault, as he had at least a hundred corrupt officers on his police force and local civil service regulations prevented him from firing them. On June 23, 1924, Acting Mayor Landes called Severyns into her office and handed him a letter demanding he remove all hundred of these apparently crooked policemen within 24 hours—she would handle the Civil Service Commission, if they were really the ones preventing the removal of corrupt officers. Severyns was furious that a woman temporarily in charge would dare give him orders, and he responded with his own letter, pointing to a section of the city charter allowing the mayor to take over the police department in an emergency situation. Landes later characterized his response as a “jeer,” writing that he told her, “Be chief of police yourself, if you don't like the way things are done!”

Landes took him at his word, declaring a state of emergency, firing Severyns, appointing Inspector J.T. Mason as acting chief (before firing him less than 24 hours later), and then assuming control of the police department herself. She appointed a former assistant police chief with a reputation for honesty, Claude G. Bannick, as acting chief, and within hours, he led raids of the city’s most notorious speakeasies, lotteries, and illegal punchboards.

Word soon reached Mayor Brown in New York that Landes had declared war on Seattle’s lawbreakers—and its corrupt cops. He left the DNC early and caught a train home, arriving five days later. Upon returning, Brown immediately reinstated Chief Severyns. The mayor argued that Landes’s actions were unnecessary because “Seattle is as good and clean as any city on the American continent.”

Newspapers around the country covered the incident, often in a mocking tone, with headlines like “Chief of Police Ousted by Woman” and “Cradle-Rocking Hand Rocked Police Department.” Mayor Brown was embarrassed, complaining that the situation had “put Seattle in a bad light all over the country.” But Landes was satisfied. “I do not believe in a Puritanical administration, even if I was born in Ware, Mass,” she told a journalist, “but there should be more rigid law enforcement by our police and I believe there will be henceforth. A score of places where there was gambling two weeks ago, are closed.” Landes hoped that she had shamed Brown into keeping a tighter lid on illegal activity, but he returned Seattle to the status quo. Two years later, Landes campaigned to replace him.

4. SHE ARGUED FOR WOMEN IN POLITICS USING TRADITIONAL GENDER NORMS.

While campaigning for mayor in 1926, Landes described her platform as “municipal housekeeping.” First gaining popularity in the 1890s, the concept of municipal housekeeping justified women’s entrance into the public sphere by imagining the city as a macro version of a home. Using this logic, women’s domestic skills—like keeping to a budget and rearing moral children—could be well-applied to solving civic problems. Landes used this model to retain a traditional feminine role even while entering the masculine domain of politics.

When faced with the argument that “a woman’s place is in the home,” Landes replied that she had spent her life in the home, raising her children and supporting her husband, and only once her children were grown and married did she seek to enter public service. “I suppose some of the politicians believe I should merely stay at home and darn my husband’s socks,” she remarked to The New York Times. “Darning socks for one’s husband is a laudable occupation, no one will deny, but I found that my husband got along very well after I became a member of the City Council.”

Landes argued that since advances in technology had reduced women’s domestic workload, “if [a woman] is not to be a parasite […] she must turn her energies to public service of some kind.” But Landes proposed that only older women whose children were already grown should enter politics, and she spoke of it as a calling more than a job. In fact, she argued that male politicians were corrupt in part because they saw politics as a career, and sought to make money from their positions. Conversely, a woman would depend on her husband for financial stability, Landes assumed, and so would not be concerned about low government salaries or tempted by opportunities for graft. “Women are actually better fitted than men for the post of mayor,” Landes told the Oakland Tribune, “because they are not thinking of future political careers.”

As a candidate in the nonpartisan mayoral election (she had no declared party), Landes pledged to clean up Seattle—enforce Prohibition, shut down illegal gambling houses and brothels, and root out corruption in law enforcement. Seattle found her message appealing; she defeated the incumbent Mayor Brown by about 6000 votes, with a record voter turnout of over 90,000 (in a city of about 350,000).

5. SHE CLEANED UP SEATTLE AND TOOK CHARGE OF THE BUDGET.

Landes was serious about “closing the town” to illegal liquor, and during her tenure as mayor, the number of annual arrests for alcohol violations more than doubled. Speakeasies fled across the Seattle city line into the rest of King County, which retained its lackadaisical Prohibition enforcement. Landes also worked to root out corruption in the police department and shut down illegal gambling and prostitution. “Vice and lawlessness cannot be completely eradicated,” she later wrote, “But open flagrant violations of law should not be tolerated for an instant.”

In addition to campaigning as a moral reformer, Landes had emphasized her commitment to the bottom line. Upon taking office, she inherited a city-owned streetcar system that was hemorrhaging money. Her administration overhauled the system’s budget, cut back on less-used routes, and appealed to Washington state to refinance the entire railway, making Seattle’s streetcars profitable. A supporter of municipally owned utilities, she also cut expenses in the water department and maintained public control of City Light, the local electricity utility, which faced an attempted private takeover.

6. DON’T CALL HER THE MAYORESS.

While Landes recognized the increased pressure she faced as the first woman mayor of an American city—“In politics it commonly takes a superior woman to overcome the handicap of traditional prejudice,” she wrote in Collier’s—she also insisted that she be treated the same as a male politician. During her time on the city council, Landes demanded to be called “councilman,” like her male peers, rather than “councilwoman,” and she later wrote in the magazine Woman Citizen, “I threaten to shoot on sight, without benefit of clergy, anyone calling me the mayoress instead of the mayor.”

During her tenure as mayor, Landes refused to let her gender—and gendered ideas about respectability—stand in her way. She visited the same places and greeted the same visitors as a male city leader would; she opened baseball games, broke ground for new buildings, flew in a Navy hydroplane, and rode in a submarine. When Seattle began construction on a new dam, Landes “put on [her] oldest clothes and tramped with muddy shoes all about the site, to observe conditions at first hand.” To celebrate the opening of a railroad terminal, she drove the first electric locomotive into Seattle. She entertained foreign dignitaries, like the royal family of Romania, and American celebrities, like Charles Lindbergh. “An English woman mayor once asked me: ‘Whom do you have to do the things a woman cannot do and go to the places a woman cannot go?’” she wrote in 1929. “There were no such things, or places, in Seattle when I was mayor.”

7. SHE WAS OUSTED AFTER A SINGLE TERM.

In Landes’s day, Seattle’s mayors served two-year terms, and she faced reelection in 1928. By this point, Prohibition had become increasingly unpopular, and Seattle’s citizens were growing tired of Landes’s reformist ways. Her efforts to remove dishonest officers from the city’s police department had also won her a host of enemies. A local businessman and political unknown named Frank Edwards ran against her, funded by policemen Landes had fired, opponents of her public power plan, and those who yearned for a government that winked at liquor and gambling laws.

Edwards’s campaign spending was unprecedented in Seattle—“variously estimated at from $20,000 to $50,000 for election to a position which pays a salary of $7,500 a year,” wrote The New York Times. He employed hundreds of paid workers, purchased billboard, radio, and newspaper ads, and embarked on a general PR blitz. The campaign was light on policy proposals, and his main message seemed to be that Landes was unsuitable for office because she was a woman.

When Landes challenged him to a series of debates Edwards declined, saying, “Any married man knows the danger of getting into an argument with a woman.” So at the first planned debate Landes spoke alone, with an empty chair onstage to represent the absent Edwards. “Can it be true,” she asked the empty chair, “that a man is afraid of a woman? If we need a man as Mayor of Seattle, why is it that the man who is the nominee for this office is afraid to meet me in debate?” The New York Times wrote, “She laughs as she conducts these one-sided debates and appears to get as much ‘kick’ out of them as her hearers, and the audience is usually in an uproar.” But outside the debate hall, Edwards’s message found an audience. “Seattle is sensitive to its reputation as a he-man city,” Julia N. Budlong wrote in The Nation at the time, “It did not like to be teased about its mayor.”

During her time in politics, Landes had not created a political machine or developed a network of officials and businessmen who depended on her. Her commitment to honest government meant that she was easy to oust. Meanwhile, supporters who backed her 1926 campaign over a desire for reform were less motivated to vote now that Landes had cleaned up the city. Local newspapers including The Seattle Times endorsed Landes for mayor, but come election day, Edwards trounced her by over 19,000 votes.

Despite speculation that she might run again, Landes never reentered politics. During the 1930s, she and her husband led University of Washington students on a series of study trips to Asia. After Henry died in 1936, Landes lived alone in their apartment in Seattle, moving to California in 1941 for health reasons. She died in 1943 at age 75, in her son’s home in Michigan.

Additional Sources:An Alumna in Politics,” Indiana Alumni Magazine, April 1939; Bertha Knight Landes of Seattle: Big-City Mayor; “Municipal Housekeeping in the American West: Bertha Knight Landes’s Entrance into Politics,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs, Vol. 14, No. 3; “The Origins of the Washington State Liquor Control Board, 1934,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol. 100, No. 4; “What Happened in Seattle,” The Nation, Aug. 29, 1928.

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Space
On This Day in 1962, NASA Launched and Destroyed Mariner 1
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NASA // Public Domain

On July 22, 1962, NASA launched the Mariner 1 probe, which was intended to fly by Venus and collect data on its temperature and atmosphere. It was intended to be the first interplanetary craft—the first time humans had sent a space probe to another world. Unfortunately, NASA aborted the mission 293 seconds after launch, destroying the probe in the Atlantic. What happened?

First off, a bit of history. Mariner 1 was based on the pre-existing Block 1 craft used in the Ranger program, which was aimed at gathering data on our moon. Those early Ranger probes didn't do so well—both Ranger 1 and Ranger 2 suffered early failures in orbit. Mariner 1 was a modified version of the Ranger design, intended for a much longer mission to another planet. It lacked a camera, but had various radiometers, a cosmic dust detector, and a plasma spectrometer—it would be capable of gathering data about Venus, but not pictures per se.

The two previous Ranger missions had used basically the same launch system, so it was reasonably well-tested. The Ranger probes had made it into orbit, but had been unable to stabilize themselves after that.

Mariner 1 launched on the evening of July 22, 1963. Its Atlas-Agena rocket was aided by two radar systems, designed to track data on velocity (the "Rate System") and distance/angle (the "Track System") and send it to ground-based computers. By combining that data, the computers at Cape Canaveral helped the rocket maintain a trajectory that, when separated, would lead Mariner 1 to Venus.

Part of the problem involved in handling two separate radars was that there was a slight delay—43 milliseconds—between the two radars' data reports. That wasn't a problem by itself. The Cape computer simply had to correct for that difference. But in that correction process, a problem was hiding—a problem that hadn't appeared in either of the previous Ranger launches.

To correct the timing of the data from the Rate System—the radar responsible for measuring velocity of the rocket—the ground computer ran data through a formula. Unfortunately, when that formula had been input into the computer, a crucial element called an overbar was omitted. The overbar indicated that several values in the formula belonged together; leaving it out meant that a slightly different calculation would be made. But that wasn't a problem by itself.

The fate of Mariner 1 was sealed when the Rate System hardware failed on launch. This should not have been a fatal blow, as the Track System was still working, and Ground Control should have been able to compensate. But because that overbar was missing, calculations on the incoming radar data went wonky. The computer incorrectly began compensating for normal movement of the spacecraft, using slightly incorrect math. The craft was moving as normal, but the formula for analyzing that data had a typo—so it began telling Mariner 1 to adjust its trajectory. It was fixing a problem that didn't exist, all because a few symbols in a formula weren't grouped together properly.

Mariner 1's rocket did as it was told, altering its trajectory based on faulty computer instructions. Looking on in horror, the Range Safety Officer at the Cape saw that the Atlas rocket was now headed for a crash-landing, potentially either in shipping lanes or inhabited areas of Earth. It was 293 seconds after launch, and the rocket was about to separate from the probe.

With just 6 seconds remaining before the Mariner 1 probe was scheduled to separate (and ground control would be lost), that officer made the right call—he sent the destruct command, ditching Mariner I in an unpopulated area of the Atlantic.

The incident was one of many early space launch failures, but what made it so notable was the frenzy of reporting about it, mostly centered on what writer Arthur C. Clarke called "the most expensive hyphen in history." The New York Times incorrectly reported that the overbar was a "hyphen" (a reasonable mistake, given that they are both printed horizontal lines) but correctly reported that this programming error, when coupled with the hardware failure of the Rate System, caused the failure. The bug was identified and fixed rapidly, though the failed launch cost $18,500,000 in 1962 dollars—north of $150 million today.

Fortunately for NASA, Mariner 2 was waiting in the wings. An identical craft, it launched just five weeks later on August 27, 1962. And, without the bug and the radar hardware failure, it worked as planned, reaching Venus and becoming the first interplanetary spacecraft in history. It returned valuable data about the temperature and atmosphere of Venus, as well as recording solar wind and interplanetary dust data along the way. There would be 10 Mariner missions in all [PDF], with Mariner 1, 3, and 8 suffering losses during launch.

For further reading, consult this Ars Technica discussion, which includes valuable quotes from Paul E. Ceruzzi's book Beyond The Limits—Flight Enters the Computer Age.

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This Just In
Lincoln’s Famous Letter of Condolence to a Grieving Mother Was Likely Penned by His Secretary
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Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain

Despite his lack of formal schooling, Abraham Lincoln was a famously eloquent writer. One of his most renowned compositions is the so-called “Bixby letter,” a short yet poignant missive the president sent a widow in Boston who was believed to have lost five sons during the Civil War. But as Newsweek reports, new research published in the journal Digital Scholarship in the Humanities [PDF] suggests that Lincoln’s private secretary and assistant, John Hay, actually composed the dispatch.

The letter to Lydia Bixby was written in November 1864 at the request of William Shouler, the adjutant general of Massachusetts, and state governor John Albion Andrew. “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming,” it read. “But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.”

Unknown to Lincoln, Bixby had actually only lost two sons in battle; the others had deserted the army, were honorably discharged, or died a prisoner of war. Nevertheless, word of the compassionate presidential gesture spread when the Boston Evening Transcript reprinted a copy of the 139-word letter for all to read.

Nobody quite knows what happened to Bixby’s original letter—some say she was a Confederate sympathizer and immediately burnt it—but for years, scholars debated whether Hay was its true author.

During Hay’s lifetime, the former secretary-turned-statesman had reportedly told several people in confidence that he—not Lincoln—had written the renowned composition, TIME reports. The rumor spread after Hay's death, but some experts interpreted the admission to mean that Hay had transcribed the letter, or had copied it from a draft.

To answer the question once and for all, a team of forensic linguists in England used a text analysis technique called n-gram tracing, which identifies the frequency of linguistic sequences in a short piece of writing to determine its true author. They tested 500 texts by Hay and 500 by Lincoln before analyzing the Bixby letter, the researchers explained in a statement quoted by Newsweek.

“Nearly 90 percent of the time, the method identified Hay as the author of the letter, with the analysis being inconclusive in the rest of the cases,” the linguists concluded.

According to Atlas Obscura, the team plans to present its findings at the International Corpus Linguistics Conference, which will take place at England’s University of Birmingham from Monday, July 24 to Friday, July 28.

[h/t Newsweek]

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