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Wikimedia Commons

The Fabulously Eccentric Life of James Gordon Bennett, Jr.

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Gilded Age New York had more than its fair share of outlandish rich people. Take Evander Berry Wall, whose crazy fashion choices (including thigh-high patent leather boots for him and bespoke collars and ties for his dogs) earned him the nickname "King of the Dudes." Then there’s C.K.G. Billings, the industrialist who hosted a dinner party on horseback in a Fifth Avenue ballroom, during which guests drank champagne through rubber tubes. And let’s not forget Alva Vanderbilt, who went ahead and founded the Metropolitan Opera when she couldn’t secure a private box at the Academy of Music. But there is perhaps no high-society New Yorker who was as consistently and astoundingly eccentric—or as influential—as James Gordon Bennett, Jr.

The son of a fabulously wealthy newspaper magnate, Bennett makes the trust fund kids of today look positively tame by comparison. From epic yacht races and colorful journalism to naked carriage rides and public urination, the man did it all. It’s no wonder that “Gordon Bennett!” became a British slang exclamation of shock and awe.

THE BEGINNINGS OF THE HERALD

James Gordon Bennett, Sr., a Scottish immigrant, founded the New York Herald in 1835, building the paper from the ground up. Within 10 years, the Herald had become the most widely read daily in America, thanks to its cheap cover price, up-to-the-minute news, and blatant sensationalism; Bennett Sr. once told a young staffer that “the object of the modern newspaper is not to instruct, but to startle and amuse.”

The elder Bennett’s fellow New Yorkers didn’t take too kindly to all the gossip-mongering; angry crowds regularly gathered outside the Herald's headquarters to the point that Papa Bennett kept a cache of weapons secreted behind the walls of his office—so it’s no surprise that he sent his son away to be educated in Paris.

‪Bennett Sr. continued to run the paper throughout the first half of the 19th century, sensationalizing the news while also pioneering the way it was reported. In 1836, he published what many historians believe was the first newspaper interview ever (the subject, naturally, was the madam of a brothel). So by 1886, when Bennett ceded editorial control of the paper to his then-25-year-old son, the Herald was well established.

THE LUCKY OWL

Bennett the younger first arrived on the New York scene as a teenager. Commanding a luxury yacht (courtesy of dad), he distinguished himself in the boating world at an early age and, at 16, became the youngest ever member of the New York Yachting Club. He took his ship to battle during the Civil War, spending a year at sea in the service of the Union. Legend has it that one night on the water, the warning hoot of an owl woke a sleeping Bennett and prevented his ship from running aground.

Whether the story is true or not, it was the catalyst for a lifelong obsession with owls. Bennett could not get enough of the predatory birds: he ran editorials on species preservation in the Herald and collected owls (both live and statuary) throughout his life. When he commissioned renowned architect Stanford White to design a new Herald building in the 1890s, it included plans to have the roof lined with bronze owl effigies—26 of them—whose eyes flashed at regular intervals with electric light.

Though the building was demolished in 1921, two of the owls now flank the Minerva statue (which also began life on the building’s roof) that stands in modern-day Herald Square—and their eyes still glow a ghostly shade of green.

YACHT ROCK

There’s a reason why Bennett’s nickname around the NYYC was “The Mad Commodore.” Though he engaged in every rich-boy pastime under the sun—polo, ballooning, tennis—his lifelong passion was yachting. He won the first-ever transatlantic yacht race in 1866, guiding the Henrietta on a two-week voyage from the New Jersey coast to the Isle of Wight. Aboard his next vessel, a steam yacht called the Namouna, he entertained artists, painters, bon vivants, and even a very young Winston Churchill.

But they were all outdone by the Lysistrata, a 300-foot monster with such onboard amenities as a Turkish bath, a milk cow in a fan-cooled stall, a theater troupe, and a luxury automobile—which he drove across Bermuda in 1906, marking the first car ever to touch the island’s soil. His joy ride earned him the enmity of two prominent vacationers: Mark Twain and a pre-presidential Woodrow Wilson, who campaigned to have cars banned from Bermuda after they saw Bennett roaring around in his De Dion-Bouton.

It wasn’t all fun and boat cows, however. Bennett kept up his publishing duties throughout his life, rising at the crack of dawn to run the Herald via letters and articles cabled to him by his editors.

WHIZZER ABOUT TOWN

To say that Bennett lived it up would be an understatement. His partying ways were infamous, fueled by a seemingly infinite store of funds and a flair for the dramatic. One of his hobbies included driving a coach-and-four at breakneck speed through the streets—often in the wee hours of the night, and often in the buff. (He once ended up in the hospital after driving under a low archway in Paris and clocking himself on the head.)

Bennett was also a cocktail enthusiast, and his boozing landed him in a heap of trouble one notorious evening in 1877. The story goes that on New Year’s Day, the publisher got rip-roaring drunk, stumbled into a fete being thrown by the family of his then-fiancée Caroline May, and proceeded to urinate into the fireplace in front of everybody. The engagement was called off, but that wasn’t the end of it: Caroline’s brother, Frederick, attacked Bennett with a horsewhip the next day, and later challenged him to a duel. Pistols at dawn were considered archaic by the 1870s, but that didn’t stop Bennett and May. As luck would have it, both of them were such bad shots that they completely missed each other, and that was the end of that.

Which isn’t to say that Bennett wasn’t mortified by the whole incident. Shortly afterwards, he left New York in shame and spent most of the rest of his life in France and traveling the world aboard his many, many yachts, and eventually founding the Paris Herald. He also maintained lavish houses in New York, Newport, Paris, the French Riviera, and Versailles—in one of Louis XIV’s chateaus, naturally, where he played host to kings and dukes.

PAY DIRT, I PRESUME

Though Bennett lived in the lap of luxury himself, he funded the exploits of adventurers willing to get their boots dirty. Most prominent among them was Henry Morton Stanley, a regular correspondent for the Herald and legendary explorer. In 1871, Bennett bankrolled Stanley’s expedition to track down a beloved Scottish missionary, David Livingstone, in the jungles of Tanzania. And naturally, he traveled in style: an armed guard, 150 porters, and 27 pack animals, while a man in front carried the flag of—what else?—the New York Yacht Club.

Stanley tracked down his target after a six-month trek, at which point he allegedly uttered the famous line: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Livingstone wasn’t actually missing, per se, but it sure made for a good story—and one that sold a lot of newspapers.

So did the next epic journey that Bennett funded, though it proved to be far less successful for the explorers themselves. Bennett backed an 1879 expedition to the as-yet-undiscovered North Pole, led by U.S. Navy vet George Washington De Long. But the trip ended in disaster when De Long’s ship was crushed by ice in the Bering Strait, and the surviving crew was forced to trek overland. Only 13 made it back to civilization in Siberia, while 20—De Long included—perished.

THE MAUSOLEUM THAT WASN’T

As Bennett aged, his affinity for the insanely opulent never waned. He went back to Stanford White (who, besides being a prominent architect, was also Bennett’s drinking buddy) with an idea for his final resting place: a 200-foot-tall mausoleum built in the shape of an owl, to stand on a promontory in Washington Heights. Inside the owl, a spiral staircase would lead visitors to the bird’s eyes, which would be windows offering sweeping views of the city. When Bennett died, his body would be placed in a sarcophagus and suspended from the ceiling on chains, to dangle in the middle of the monument.

But Bennett’s ridiculous tomb never came to be. In 1906, White was murdered by his lover Evelyn Nesbit’s millionaire husband, resulting in a lengthy court case that the media (the Herald included) dubbed “The Trial of the Century.” Bennett scrapped his plans for the giant owl, depriving New York City of what could have been its weirdest landmark.

LAST COMES MARRIAGE

Though Bennett was a notorious playboy, he eventually did settle down—at the ripe old age of 73. His wife was Maud Potter, the widow of George de Reuter (of Reuters news agency). They were married until Bennett’s death five years later, when he passed away at his villa in the Riviera in 1918.

Sadly, Bennett's paper followed him to the grave; the Herald was sold off in 1920 and was absorbed into an amalgam that became the now-folded New York Herald-Tribune.

But perhaps Bennett always knew his baby was doomed to die with him. When he moved the Herald building uptown, he only signed a 30-year lease. When an underling questioned this decision, he was quickly told by the mercurial publisher that, “Thirty years from now, the Herald will be in Harlem, and I’ll be in Hell!”

Here’s hoping Bennett’s having an entertaining eternity down there in the inferno; otherwise, after a life like that, he’d get terribly bored.

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Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Humans Might Have Practiced Brain Surgery on Cows 5000 Years Ago
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi

In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered a site in France containing hundreds of cow skeletons dating back 5000 to 5400 years. The sheer number wasn't surprising—human agriculture in that part of the world was booming by 3000 BCE. What perplexed scientists was something uncovered there a few decades later: a cow skull bearing a thoughtfully drilled hole. Now, a team of researchers has released evidence that suggests the hole is an early example of animal brain surgery.

Fernando Ramírez Rozzi, a paleontologist with the French National Center for Scientific Research, and Alain Froment, an anthropologist at the Museum of Mankind in Paris, published their findings in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. After comparing the opening to the holes chiseled into the skulls of humans from the same era, they found the bones bore some striking similarities. They didn't show any signs of fracturing from blunt force trauma; rather, the hole in the cow skull, like those in the human skulls, seemed to have been carved out carefully using a tool made for exactly that purpose. That suggests that the hole is evidence of the earliest known veterinary surgery performed by humans.

Trepanation, or the practice of boring holes into human skulls, is one of the oldest forms of surgery. Experts are still unsure why ancient humans did this, but the level of care that went into the procedures suggests that the surgery was likely used to treat sick patients while they were still alive. Why a person would perform this same surgery on a cow, however, is harder to explain.

The authors present a few theories, the first being that these ancient brain surgeons were treating a sick cow the same way they might treat a sick human. If a cow was suffering from a neural disease like epilepsy, perhaps they though that cutting a hole in its head would relieve whatever was agitating the brain. The cow would have needed to be pretty special to warrant such an effort when there were hundreds of healthy cows living on the same plot of land, as evidenced by the skeletons it was found with.

Another possible explanation was that whoever operated on the cow did so as practice to prepare them for drilling into the heads of live humans one day. "Cranial surgery requires great manual dexterity and a complete knowledge of the anatomy of the brain and vessel distribution," the authors write in the study. "It is possible that the mastery of techniques in cranial surgery shown in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods was acquired through experimentation on animals."

Either way, the bovine patient didn't live to see the results of the procedure: The bone around the hole hadn't healed at all, which suggests the cow either died during surgery or wasn't alive to begin with.

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History
How the Log Cabin Became an American Symbol
iStock
iStock

Many Americans have a special fondness for the log cabin, viewing it as the home of heroic pioneers, or at least a great weekend escape. But it wasn’t always this way. The log cabin was originally disdained here in America—and it took decades of pop culture and political shifts to elevate the structure to the vaunted status it holds today.

THANK THE SWEDES

While there’s plenty of imagery portraying log cabins in the English colonies of Plymouth and Jamestown (established in Massachusetts and Virginia, respectively), these depictions couldn’t be further from the truth. The English had no history of log cabins—they preferred more “refined” frame houses, and would sometimes squat in subterranean dugouts until they could be built. In fact, the log cabin was first constructed in the New World in the short-lived colony of New Sweden, established in the Delaware River Valley in 1638. Such structures had been around continental Europe for centuries, and the Swedish colonists were simply using a skill that had been passed down through generations.

Log cabins might have remained a Swedish anomaly in the New World had it not been for the German and Scots-Irish who adopted them after arriving in the mid-1700s. But none of these log cabins looked much like the quaint, cozy structures we revere today. They often had dirt floors, were crawling with lice and other pests, and were prone to drafts; as one traveler remarked around 1802, the gaps between logs were "filled up with clay, but so very carelessly, that the light may be seen through in every part." Yet as uncomfortable as these cabins were, they offered impoverished immigrants an invaluable slice of freedom. Cheaper and far easier to construct than finer homes, the log cabin thus became the go-to home for newcomers to the New World, helping millions of desperate refugees turn their dreams of settling in America into a reality.

But the practicality of the structure did nothing for the log cabin's public image, or that of its inhabitants. Benjamin Franklin wrote that there were only two sorts of people, "those who are well dress'd and live comfortably in good houses," and those who "are poor, and dirty, and ragged and ignorant, and vicious and live in miserable cabins or garrets." Dr. Benjamin Rush, Surgeon General of the Middle Department of the Continental Army and a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, said the cabin dweller was “generally a man who has out-lived his credit or fortune in the cultivated parts."

As for cabins themselves, they were generally seen as “rude” and “miserable,” and no self-respecting American would deign to live in one. Not permanently, at least. Cabins back then were temporary stepping stones meant to be abandoned once something better could be afforded; barring that good fortune, they were to be covered with clapboard and added to as the cornerstone for a finer home.

LOG CABIN PRIDE

But the log cabin and its inhabitants’ public image got a makeover after the War of 1812. The nation had just defeated the British for a second time, and Americans were feeling good, forging their own identity and distinguishing themselves from the old world. Log cabins—ubiquitous and appropriately rustic—started taking on an all-American sheen.

Soon enough, writers and artists were portraying them in a positive light. One notable example is James Fenimore Cooper’s 1823 novel The Pioneers, where the house of protagonist Natty Bumppo is described as being “a rough cabin of logs.” That scene in turn is thought to have inspired artist Thomas Cole’s 1826 painting, Daniel Boone Sitting at the Door of His Cabin on the Great Osage Lake. Together, these works helped spark an entire movement that saw the pioneer as a hero. Log cabin dwellers were no longer disdained for their rough edges; these same edges were what made them romantic and distinctly American.

A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
Library of Congress // Public Domain

Similar shifts occurred in the political realm during the 1840 election. President Martin van Buren faced an uphill battle for reelection that year, and a politically aligned newspaper thought it could give him a leg up by launching a classist attack against rival William Henry Harrison: “Give [Harrison] a barrel of Hard Cider, and settle a pension of $2000 a year on him, and my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his Log Cabin.” In other words: Harrison was an ignorant hick.

It was a lie—the wealthy Harrison actually lived in a mansion—but most of the public didn’t know it, and his rivals assumed voters would scorn Harrison’s poverty. They were wrong: Millions of Americans still lived in log cabins, struggling day-in-and-day-out, and they were not impressed. (“No sneer could have been more galling,” John McMaster wrote in his 1883 A History of the People of the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War.)

In no time at all, Americans rich and poor were displaying their Harrison love and log cabin pride by holding cabin raisings and patronizing specially-constructed log cabin bars, marching in massive parades with log cabins pulled by teams of horses, and purchasing heaps of Harrison-themed, log cabin-stamped merchandise, including tea sets, hair brushes, and hope chests. With his eye on the prize, Harrison gamely played into this fib, telling frenzied crowds that he’d rather relax in his log cabin than run for president, but that he had heeded their call to run for the White House. That fall, he won handily.

Though Harrison died 32 days into his term, his log cabin campaign became a reliable template for candidates in the years ahead. Franklin Pierce downplayed his family’s wealth in 1852, instead focusing on a brief time spent in a log cabin as a baby. James Buchanan did the same in 1856, and Lincoln’s log cabin youth was brought up consistently come 1860. “Like President Harrison, Mr. Lincoln has spent about one third part of his life in a log cabin,” one biography read.

"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way" by Frances Flora Palmer
"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way"
Frances Flora Palmer, Library of Congress

Log cabins became an even more persistent presence in the arts, culture, and commerce in the decades ahead, making cameos in iconic images like Frances Flora Bond Palmer’s 1868 painting Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way, in which the cabin is the symbol of an ever-expanding American empire. The log cabin also figured into tales high and low, such as The Log-Cabin Lady—a prescriptive memoir about escaping low-class drudgery—and The Log-Cabin Bishop, an uplifting account of a man who brought religion to the frontier. The Log Cabin Library dime novels even peddled swashbuckling adventures to young boys.

FALSE MEMORIES

Most powerful in terms of ingraining log cabin adoration in young Americans, though, were the scores of false histories that projected the log cabin back onto Plymouth and Jamestown. Historians of the late-19th century had heard so much about the log cabin that they just assumed it was key to American growth and expansion, leading to assertions like John G. Palfrey’s 1860 claim, “[Settlers] made themselves comfortable in log-houses,” and images like W.L. Williams 1890s painting, Plymouth in 1622. The latter shows the colony as a smattering of log cabins and was widely distributed to elementary school classrooms, cementing the image of a cabin-laden Plymouth.

A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
Tinker*Tailor loves Lalka, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

From then on, the log cabin was portrayed as the ultimate proverbial rag from which the rich nation of the U.S. had emerged, as when historian Warder Stevens declared in 1916, “The story of America is written in log cabins.” It’s this tradition of myth-making and believing that inspired subsequent outpourings of log cabin nostalgia: Lincoln Logs in the interwar years, log cabin chic of the 1990s, and today’s reality programs showing urbanites fleeing to the woods.

These days, the log cabin is emblazoned on money and sewn onto flags; it fascinates modern artists like Will Ryman (who created a gold-resin-covered log cabin at the New Orleans Museum of Art); and it appears in music of all genres, from country crooner Porter Wagoner’s 1965 track “An Old Log Cabin for Sale” to T-Pain and Lil Wayne’s 2008 romantic rap “Can’t Believe It.” That said, perhaps the log cabin itself is the nation’s greatest rags-to-riches story; it went from being sneered at as a poor immigrants’ hovel to being revered as an American icon. Not bad for something that writer John Filson, discussing Boone’s home circa 1784, described as “not extraordinary.”

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