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10 World-Shaping Events That Happened in 1920

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The “Roaring Twenties” are the only decade in American history with a nickname. In his book 1920: The Year That Made the Decade Roar, Eric Burns explores the first year of a captivating decade and shows that it wasn't all flappers and jazz bands. Every aspect of life today was in some way influenced by the title year. Here are 10 things that 1920 has to say about 1920. 

1. The League of Nations was established. 

In an address to Congress in 1919, President Woodrow Wilson presented what he called the “Fourteen Points” (derided by others as his Ten Commandments because of Wilson’s insufferable self-righteousness), a plan to end war forever. The following year, he traveled to Paris to help negotiate the Treaty of Versailles. Upon his arrival, as Burns relates, “he was hailed by the French as no American since Benjamin Franklin had been hailed.” The Fourteen Points were enthusiastically adopted by diplomats, and became a framework for the League of Nations. On January 16, 1920, the League held its first Executive Council meeting, consisting of the major member-powers. In November of that year, it held its first General Assembly in Geneva, which was open to all members. At its height, the League of Nations had 58 member states. The United States never joined. 

2. America had a de-facto woman president. 

While on the campaign trail pushing for the U.S. to accept the League of Nations, President Wilson suffered a blood clot that caused paralysis, partial blindness, and brain damage. For the remainder of his term—another year and a half—he was, as Burns describes, “an invalid at best, little more than a rumor at worst,” totally incapable of meeting with lawmakers, governing, or performing the duties of the presidency; the First Lady, Edith Wilson, stepped in and assumed his role. She controlled access to the president and made policy decisions on his behalf. When something needed to be signed or written, she wrapped her hand around his and scrawled words with a pen. The French ambassador to the United States reported back to his superiors that Wilson was a non-factor in governance. The real power rested with “Mme. President.”

3. America sustained the worst terrorist attack in its history. 

On September 16, 1920, a horse-drawn cart carrying a massive, improvised explosive was detonated on the busiest corner on Wall Street. One eyewitness described “two sheets of flame that seemed to envelop the whole width of Wall Street and as high as the tenth story of the tall buildings.” Thirty-eight people were killed in the Wall Street Bombing, and hundreds were injured. It was, at the time, the worst terrorist attack in American history, unsurpassed in horror until the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995. The perpetrators were likely Italian anarchists. 

4. J. Edgar Hoover began his ascent.

As a result of a series of bombings in 1919, the attorney general of the United States, Mitchell Palmer, mounted a campaign to capture and deport foreign radicals. The next year marked the “most spectacular” of the Palmer raids, in which thousands of accused communists and anarchists across the country were arrested in a single swoop. The raid’s organizer was a young lawyer named J. Edgar Hoover, head of the Bureau of Investigation’s General Intelligence Division.

Ultimately, the raids proved to be fraught with questionable confessions and illegal warrants, and Palmer’s career was derailed as a result. Hoover, however, would go on to lead the Bureau and its successor agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, from 1924 until 1972.

The raids were a formative lesson for Hoover. After witnessing what happened to Palmer, Hoover would work obsessively to keep in the good graces of the politically powerful (the FBI never investigated a member of Congress while Hoover was in charge), and work always to protect the FBI’s image. 

5. Women gained the right to vote. 

The women’s suffrage movement reached as far back as 1638, when Margaret Brent, a successful businesswoman in Virginia, demanded the right to vote in the state’s House of Burgesses. By 1920, every state west of the Mississippi River allowed women to vote. Burns notes that “a mere nine states denied women the vote in all instances, and seven of those, to their inexplicable shame, were among the original thirteen colonies.” The last “yes” vote needed for ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which provided for women’s suffrage, was Tennessee. On August 18, 1920, the Tennessee House of Representatives voted in favor of the amendment by a vote of 50-49. 

6. The Constitution was twice amended in a single year.

It was the only year since the passage of the Bill of Rights that the Constitution was twice amended. The Eighteenth Amendment prohibited alcohol in the United States. It was, writes Burns, “the most openly ignored regulation in American history ... Not only did the Amendment fail to be heeded; it often failed to be acknowledged with a straight face.” As Will Rogers asked at the time, “Why don’t they pass a constitutional amendment prohibiting anybody from learning anything? If it works as well as prohibition did, in five years Americans would be the smartest race of people on Earth.” In 1920, Burns provides an astonishing array of statistics that were the result of Prohibition: drunk and disorderly arrests increased 41 percent; drunk driving increased 81 percent; violent crime and murder went up 13 percent; the federal prison population swelled by a staggering 366 percent; and “federal expenditures on penal institutions of all sorts soared a thousand percent!” 

7. The “Lost Generation” began its transformation of American literature. 

In 1920, the “Lost Generation”—expatriate writers who lived in Europe following World War I—became a force in American literature. Among books published in 1920 were Main Street, a skewering of small-town America by Sinclair Lewis; This Side of Paradise, the debut novel of F. Scott Fitzgerald; and Flappers and Philosophers, Fitzgerald’s first collection of short fiction. That year, Fitzgerald also introduced Maxwell Perkins, the famed editor for Scribner’s, to the short stories of Ernest Hemingway, who would go on to some success. 

8. The KKK terrorized the nation. 

The Ku Klux Klan, a genocidal domestic terrorist organization founded during Reconstruction, was revitalized in 1920, the result in part of new Klan leadership with an eye for publicity. The Klan’s activities, Burns describes, were “reigns of terror, spaced widely in time and place,” that could be “loosely compared to latter-day outbreaks of the Inquisition.” But while the Inquisition targeted heretical Roman Catholics, the Klan “hated not only Catholics, but Jews, Asians, African-Americans, and Europeans who were not from the non-Nordic countries of the north.” Fifty years later, President Johnson turned J. Edgar Hoover loose on the KKK, and the FBI would achieve the greatest law enforcement victory in its history, all but eradicating the terrorist organization. 

9. A guy named Ponzi came up with a sales scheme. 

In the early 1900s, representatives from countries around the world worked out a way to make it easier for people to send mail across national borders. They created an “international reply coupon,” which could be bought in one country and traded for postage stamps in another. Charles Ponzi, an Italian immigrant to the United States, discovered a loophole in the system. Because World War I left much of Europe in economic ruin, Ponzi realized that he could buy coupons in various countries and redeem them in the United States for a return on investment. Because he wanted large returns, he needed a large investment. He set up a business called the Security Exchange Company (which, Burns writes, “had just the right sound to him. Respectable, trustworthy, and accurate; the company was, after all, exchanging securities”). He hired agents to bring in new investors, promising large commissions for the money brought in. Eventually, word spread that investments could bring massive returns, and investors were able to bring in new investors, who brought in new investors, and so on. Ponzi soon found that profit was no longer even a necessary ingredient for the company to operate; investors were essentially funding each other’s commission. The system, of course, eventually collapsed, though Ponzi schemes live on today. 

10. The mass media was born.

In November 1920, the first commercially-licensed radio station began broadcasting live results of the presidential election. The transmission of breaking news was new and unprecedented, and as word spread of this new medium, the “talking box” exploded in popularity. Two years later, Americans bought 100,000 radios. In 1923, they bought 500,000. By 1926, there were over 700 commercial radio stations, and virtually the entire country was covered by radio signals. As Burns writes, “No other event of 1920 would have more of an effect on the future than the birth of radio, with was in turn the birth of American mass media.”

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Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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The Little-Known History of Fruit Roll-Ups
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David Kessler, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The thin sheets of “fruit treats” known as Fruit Roll-Ups have been a staple of supermarkets since 1983, when General Mills introduced the snack to satisfy the sweet tooth of kids everywhere. But as Thrillist writer Gabriella Gershenson recently discovered, the Fruit Roll-Up has an origin that goes much further back—all the way to the turn of the 20th century.

The small community of Syrian immigrants in New York City in the early 1900s didn’t have the packaging or marketing power of General Mills, but they had the novel idea of offering an apricot-sourced “fruit leather” they called amardeen. A grocery proprietor named George Shalhoub would import an apricot paste from Syria that came in massive sheets. At the request of customers, employees would snip off a slice and offer the floppy treat that was named after cowhide because it was so hard to chew.

Although Shalhoub’s business relocated to Brooklyn in the 1940s, the embryonic fruit sheet continued to thrive. George’s grandson, Louis, decided to sell crushed, dried apricots in individually packaged servings. The business later became known as Joray, which sold the first commercial fruit roll-up in 1960. When a trade publication detailed the family’s process in the early 1970s, it opened the floodgates for other companies to begin making the distinctive treat. Sunkist was an early player, but when General Mills put their considerable advertising power behind their Fruit Roll-Ups, they became synonymous with the sticky snack.

Joray is still in business, offering kosher roll-ups that rely more heavily on fruit than the more processed commercial version. But the companies have one important thing in common: They both have the sense not to refer to their product as “fruit leather.”

[h/t Thrillist]

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