United States Department of Defense (Public Domain)
United States Department of Defense (Public Domain)

This Weekend in History

United States Department of Defense (Public Domain)
United States Department of Defense (Public Domain)

Happy Saturday! Here are five notable things that happened this weekend (July 25 and 26), from the establishment of the Post Office to the birth of Louise Brown.

1. 1775 - (Soon-to-Be U.S.) Post Office Established

During the first Continental Congress in 1774, a frustrated newspaper printer made the case for a new, reliable postal system within the Thirteen Colonies. It wasn't until the Second Continental Congress that anyone acted on the idea, naming Benjamin Franklin postmaster general on July 26, 1775.

Franklin was a solid choice as he was the postmaster of Philadelphia, and had served as joint postmaster general for the colonies from 1753 to 1774 (he was fired in '74 for some naughty-but-politically-expedient behavior related to Massachusetts Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson’s mail).

Franklin only served in his new post for a year, handing it to his son-in-law in November of 1776. But during his brief tenure, Franklin established reliable overnight service between Philadelphia and New York, created a standard rate table based on weight and distance, and surveyed routes stretching from Maine to Florida. He also happened to be in office when the colonies declared independence, making Franklin the first Postmaster General of the United States.

2. 1946 - First Nuclear Bomb Test at Bikini Atoll

The United States conducted the first underwater nuclear bomb test on July 25, 1946. Called "Operation Crossroads," the bomb blew at sea near Bikini atoll. Various obsolete U.S. battleships (plus remnants of the Japanese Navy) were placed nearby to test what happened to them as a "boiling, foaming wall of paper" overtook them, and the whole thing was filmed.

The experiments continued for nearly a decade, with disastrous results for the former residents of the islands, who were evacuated and left without a homeland.

3. 1956 - The SS Andrea Doria Sinks

The Italian luxury liner Andrea Doria collided with the Stockholm in heavy fog on the night of July 25, 1956. The huge Andrea Doria listed to starboard, causing many of her lifeboats to become unreachable.

Fortunately the ship remained afloat for more than 11 hours, long enough to receive aid from the Stockholm and many other ships in the area, most notably the Ile de France. It is the largest civilian rescue at sea in history, with more than 1,600 passengers and crew rescued, and casualties over 40.

4. 1965 - Dylan Goes Electric

On July 25, 1965, Bob Dylan performed a simple three-song set at the Newport Folk Festival. What differentiated this set from his earlier performances at the festival was the band backing him—and that everybody was playing electric guitars through a crappy sound system. This wasn't folk anymore.

When Dylan "went electric" with the tune "Maggie's Farm," he alienated his folk fans and entered uncharted territory. Although he did proceed to play some acoustic numbers, Dylan didn't perform at Newport for 37 years after that day. (For comparison, watch his acoustic magic at Newport the year prior.)

5. 1978 - First "Test Tube Baby" Born

Today, in vitro fertilization (IVF) is a relatively common medical procedure. In 1978 it was headline news, when Louise Brown was born in the United Kingdom. Technically speaking, Brown was conceived in a petri dish (not a test tube), and thirty years later, gave birth to her own first child. Happy birthday, Louise!

Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
The DEA Crackdown on Thomas Jefferson's Poppy Plants
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.

The bloom has come off Papaver somniferum in recent years, as the innocuous-looking plant has come under new scrutiny for its role as a building block in many pain-blunting opiates—and, by association, the opioid epidemic. That this 3-foot-tall plant harbors a pod that can be crushed and mixed with water to produce a euphoric high has resulted in a stigma regarding its growth. Not even gardens honoring our nation's Founding Fathers are exempt, which is how the estate of Thomas Jefferson once found itself in a bizarre dialogue with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) over its poppy plants and whether the gift shop clerks were becoming inadvertent drug dealers.

Jefferson, the nation's third president, was an avowed horticulturist. He spent years tending to vegetable and flower gardens, recording the fates of more than 300 varieties of 90 different plants in meticulous detail. At Monticello, his Charlottesville, Virginia plantation, Jefferson devoted much of his free time to his sprawling soil. Among the vast selection of plants were several poppies, including the much-maligned Papaver somniferum.

The front view of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate
Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate.

"He was growing them for ornamental purposes,” Peggy Cornett, Monticello’s historic gardener and curator of plants, tells Mental Floss. “It was very common in early American gardens, early Colonial gardens. Poppies are annuals and come up easily.”

Following Jefferson’s death in 1826, the flower garden at Monticello was largely abandoned, and his estate was sold off to help repay the debts he had left behind. Around 115 years later, the Garden Club of Virginia began to restore the plot with the help of Jefferson’s own sketches of his flower borders and some highly resilient bulbs.

In 1987, Monticello’s caretakers opened the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, complete with a greenhouse, garden, and retail store. The aim was to educate period-accurate gardeners and sell rare seeds to help populate their efforts. Papaver somniferum was among the offerings.

This didn’t appear to be of concern to anyone until 1991, when local reporters began to obsess over narcotics tips following a drug bust at the University of Virginia. Suddenly, the Center for Historic Plants was fielding queries about the “opium poppies” in residence at Monticello.

The Center had never tried to hide it. “We had labels on all the plants,” says Cornett, who has worked at Monticello since 1983 and remembers the ensuing political scuffle. “We didn’t grow them at the Center. We just collected and sold the seeds that came from Monticello.”

At the time, the legality of growing the poppy was frustratingly vague for the Center’s governing board, who tried repeatedly to get clarification on whether they were breaking the law. A representative for the U.S. Department of Agriculture saw no issue with it, but couldn’t cite a specific law exempting the Center. The Office of the Attorney General in Virginia had no answer. It seemed as though no authority wanted to commit to a decision.

Eventually, the board called the DEA and insisted on instructions. Despite the ubiquity of the seeds—they can spring up anywhere, anytime—the DEA felt the Jefferson estate was playing with fire. Though they were not a clandestine opium den, they elected to take action in June of 1991.

“We pulled up the plants," Cornett says. “And we stopped selling the seeds, too.”

Today, Papaver somniferum is no longer in residence at Monticello, and its legal status is still murky at best. (While seeds can be sold and planting them should not typically land gardeners in trouble, opium poppy is a Schedule II drug and growing it is actually illegal—whether or not it's for the express purpose of making heroin or other drugs.) The Center does grow other plants in the Papaver genus, all of which have varying and usually low levels of opium.

As for Jefferson himself: While he may not have crushed his poppies personally, he did benefit from the plant’s medicinal effects. His personal physician, Robley Dunglison, prescribed laudanum, a tincture of opium, for recurring gastric issues. Jefferson took it until the day prior to his death, when he rejected another dose and told Dunglison, “No, doctor, nothing more.”

Family Communications Inc./Getty Images
Pop Culture
Mr. Rogers’s Sweater and Shoes Are on Display at the Heinz History Center
Family Communications Inc./Getty Images
Family Communications Inc./Getty Images

To celebrate what would have been Fred Rogers’s 90th birthday on March 20, the Heinz History Center of Pittsburgh has added two new, iconic pieces to its already extensive Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood display: his trademark sweater and shoes.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Rogers's green cardigan and blue Sperry shoes are now part of the fourth-floor display at the History Center, where they join other items from the show like McFeely’s “Speedy Delivery” tricycle, the Great Oak Tree, and King Friday XIII’s castle.

The sweater and shoe combo has been in the museum’s storage area, but with Rogers’s 90th birthday and the 50th anniversary of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on deck for 2018, this was the perfect time to let the public enjoy the show's legendary props.

Fred Rogers was a mainstay in the Pittsburgh/Latrobe, Pennsylvania area, and there are numerous buildings and programs named after him, including the Fred Rogers Center and exhibits at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

If you’re in the area and want to take a look at Heinz History’s tribute to Mr. Rogers, the museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

[h/t Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]


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