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New York City's Other Subway

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

For many, the story of subterranean travel in New York begins in October 27, 1904, when the first underground line of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company began to operate from City Hall to 145th Street and Broadway. But in reality, underground transit in New York began 34 years earlier—in a stranger-than-fiction saga that involves a secret dig, a massive success, and unheard-of political corruption.

The year was 1869, and a man named Alfred Ely Beach had a big idea. At the time, Beach was best known as the publisher of Scientific American, which he purchased from its founder with a friend just 10 months after it was first printed. (Beach was also known for running a school for freedmen after the Civil War and patenting an early typewriter.)

Like most New Yorkers before and since, Beach hated the city’s notorious traffic. The streets were crowded with horses, carts, and hordes of frustrated people, including the inventor. Beach was familiar with London’s new Metropolitan Railway, the world’s first underground subway system. But building the subway had been a huge investment of time and a gigantic disruption of the city—not exactly something that seemed viable for cash-strapped New York.

This directly conflicted with Beach’s grand vision, which involved the relatively new concept of pneumatic tubes. The idea was already being used to push capsules containing letters at the London Stock Exchange, and Beach wanted to turn the technology into a game changer for New York. He became a bona fide pneumatic tube pusher, proposing their use for businesses in New York and, eventually, public transit. The idea was almost deceptively simple. “A tube, a car, a revolving fan!” he wrote breathlessly. “Little more is required.” 

Soon Beach was convinced that pneumatic tubes were the solution for New York’s traffic problem. But Boss Tweed, the head of the political machine that was the city’s Tammany Hall, disagreed. When Beach applied for a permit, Tweed turned it down (likely because he was involved in building an above-ground transit system—and collecting huge amounts of graft in the process). So Beach did what any intrepid inventor would do: He got permits to build pneumatic mail tubes instead, then set about building a full-blown demonstration subway under the guise of a piddly mail delivery project. 

Fifty-eight days after construction began, Beach’s secret tunnel was ready to unveil to the public. It was only about a block long, but it was long enough. It also almost unleashed a public firestorm when newspapers claimed that the pneumatic tube people were causing Broadway to sink. Beach created a distraction and avoided a PR catastrophe by holding a star-studded reception underground. He entertained guests in an elaborate waiting room complete with a fountain filled with goldfish, chandeliers and a grand piano, then whisked passengers about 300 feet on a subway car. 

It was nothing less than a sensation. Not only did Beach collect 25-cent fares from over 400,000 passengers in the first year, but he demonstrated that it was possible to move passengers safely beneath the city. Beach’s next step was to try to extend the line, but political interference from Tweed and other legislators and waning public interest sucked the life out of the plan like, well, a pneumatic fan in the years that followed. (Read Joseph Brennan’s epic account of the ins and outs of the political drama and technical challenges of the system here.) 

Though Beach’s vision of a pneumatic underground subway system never went further than a few hundred feet, another one of his concepts lasted much longer. Beach himself didn’t build the underground pneumatic mail system [PDF] that ran beneath the city from 1897 to 1953, but he surely helped inspire it.

The Beach Pneumatic Station was soon forgotten and periodically rediscovered, then annihilated when the City Hall subway station was built in 1912. The system’s closed car and tunnel shield were initially preserved, but have since been lost. How would New York transit look today if his idea hadn't flopped? We'll never know—but it's fun to dream about an alternative timeline filled with Beach's underground, undercover pneumatic trains.

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P.G. Wodehouse's Exile from England
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You don’t get more British than Jeeves and Wooster. The P.G. Wodehouse characters are practically synonymous with elevenses and Pimm’s. But in 1947, their creator left England for the U.S. and never looked back.

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, better known as P.G., was living in northern France and working on his latest Jeeves and Wooster novel, Joy in the Morning, when the Nazis came knocking. They occupied his estate for a period of time before shipping him off to an internment camp in Germany, which he later said he found pretty pleasant:

“Everybody seems to think a German internment camp must be a sort of torture chamber. It was really perfectly normal and ordinary. The camp had an extraordinarily nice commander, and we did all sorts of things, you know. We played cricket, that sort of thing. Of course, I was writing all the time.”

Wodehouse was there for 11 months before being suddenly released to a hotel in Berlin where a man from the German foreign office named Werner Plack was waiting to meet him. Wodehouse was somewhat acquainted with Plack from a stint in Hollywood, so finding him waiting didn't seem out of the ordinary. Plack advised Wodehouse to use his time in the internment camp to his advantage, and suggested writing a radio series about his experiences to be broadcast in America.

As Plack probably suspected, Wodehouse’s natural writing style meant that his broadcasts were light-hearted affairs about playing cricket and writing novels, This didn’t sit too well with the British, who believed Wodehouse was trying to downplay the horrors of the war. The writer was shocked when MI5 subjected him to questioning about the “propaganda” he wrote for the Germans. "I thought that people, hearing the talks, would admire me for having kept cheerful under difficult conditions," he told them in 1944. "I would like to conclude by saying that I never had any intention of assisting the enemy and that I have suffered a great deal of mental pain as the result of my action."

Wodehouse's contemporary George Orwell came to his aid, penning a 1945 an essay called “In Defense of P.G. Wodehouse." Sadly, it didn’t do much to sway public opinion. Though MI5 ultimately decided not to prosecute, it seemed that British citizens had already made up their minds, with some bookstores and libraries even removing all Wodehouse material from their shelves. Seeing the writing on the wall, the author and his wife packed up all of their belongings and moved to New York in 1947. They never went back to England.

But that’s not to say Wodehouse didn’t want to. In 1973, at the age of 91, he expressed interest in returning. “I’d certainly like to, but at my age it’s awfully difficult to get a move on. But I’d like to go back for a visit in the spring. They all seem to want me to go back. The trouble is that I’ve never flown. I suppose that would solve everything."

Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack before he could make the trip. But the author bore no ill will toward his native country. When The Paris Review interviewed Wodehouse in 1973, they asked if he resented the way he was treated by the English. “Oh, no, no, no. Nothing of that sort. The whole thing seems to have blown over now,” he said.  He was right—the Queen bestowed Wodehouse with a knighthood two months before his death, showing that all was forgiven.

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Mata Hari: Famous Spy or Creative Storyteller?
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Nearly everyone has heard of Mata Hari, one of the most cunning and seductive spies of all-time. Except that statement isn't entirely true. Cunning and seductive, yes. Spy? Probably not. 

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest daughter of a hat store owner who was quite wealthy thanks to some savvy oil investments.  When her mother died, her father remarried and shuffled his children off to various relatives. To escape, an 18-year-old Margaretha answered an ad in the paper that might have read something like this: "Dutch Colonial Army Captain Seeks Wife. Compatibility not important. Must not mind blatant infidelity or occasional beatings."

She had two children with Captain Rudolf MacLeod, but they did nothing to improve the marriage. He brazenly kept a mistress and a concubine; she moved in with another officer. Again, probably looking to escape her miserable existence, Margaretha spent her time in Java (where the family had relocated for Captain MacLeod's job) becoming part of the culture, learning all about the dance and even earning a dance name bestowed upon her by the locals—"Mata Hari," which meant "eye of the day" or "sun."

Her son died after being poisoned by an angry servant (so the MacLeods believed).

Margaretha divorced her husband, lost custody of her daughter and moved to Paris to start a new life for herself in 1903. Calling upon the dance skills she had learned in Java, the newly restyled Mata Hari became a performer, starting with the circus and eventually working her way up to exotic dancer. 

To make herself seem more mysterious and interesting, Mata Hari told people her mother was a Javanese princess who taught her everything she knew about the sacred religious dances she performed. The dances were almost entirely in the nude.

Thanks to her mostly-nude dancing and tantalizing background story, she was a hot commodity all over Europe. During WWI, this caught the attention of British Intelligence, who brought her in and demanded to know why she was constantly traipsing across the continent. Under interrogation, she apparently told them she was a spy for France—that she used her job as an exotic dancer to coerce German officers to give her information, which she then supplied back to French spymaster Georges Ladoux. No one could verify these claims and Mata Hari was released.

Not too long afterward, French intelligence intercepted messages that mentioned H-21, a spy who was performing remarkably well. Something in the messages reminded the French officers of Mata Hari's tale and they arrested her at her hotel in Paris on February 13, 1917, under suspicion of being a double agent.

Mata Hari repeatedly denied all involvement in any spying for either side. Her captors didn't believe her story, and perhaps wanting to make an example of her, sentenced her to death by firing squad. She was shot to death 100 years ago today, on October 15, 1917.

In 1985, one of her biographers convinced the French government to open their files on Mata Hari. He says the files contained not one shred of evidence that she was spying for anyone, let alone the enemy. Whether the story she originally told British intelligence was made up by them or by her to further her sophisticated and exotic background is anyone's guess. 

Or maybe she really was the ultimate spy and simply left no evidence in her wake.

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