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11 Facts for Thomas Paine's Birthday

Born on February 9, 1737 (according to the Gregorian calendar), Paine was a brilliant essayist whose polarizing pen brought him praise and scorn on both sides of the Atlantic. Here are a few things you might not have known about the man John Adams once called “a mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf.”

1. HE ARRIVED IN AMERICA WITH A LETTER OF RECOMMENDATION FROM BEN FRANKLIN.

The first half of Thomas Paine’s life was marred by setbacks and sorrow. Born and raised in Norfolk, England, his formal education consisted of a five-year stint at Thetford Grammar School which ended when he began apprenticing under his father—a stay-maker—at age 13. By the time Paine turned 38, he’d suffered the death of his first wife and child, parted ways with his second one, and had twice been dismissed from his post at the English Excise Service. But around that time, Paine was introduced to Benjamin Franklin by their mutual friend, mathematician George Lewis Scott. Franklin encouraged Paine to emigrate to the American colonies, and in 1774, Paine set sail for Philadelphia with a letter of recommendation from Franklin. It instructed Paine to show the document to Franklin's son-in-law, Pennsylvania businessman Richard Bache.

“The bearer, Mr. Thomas Paine, is very well recommended to me as an ingenious worthy young man,” Franklin wrote. “He goes to Pennsylvania with a view of settling there. I request you give him your best advice and countenance, as he is quite a stranger there. If you can put him in a way of obtaining employment … you will do well, and much oblige your affectionate father.”

At the end of a long and arduous journey, Paine arrived in the new world on November 30, 1774. As instructed, he showed the letter to Bache, who obligingly found him a tutoring job. The following year, Paine was hired as the executive editor of Pennsylvania Magazine, a monthly periodical, and within three months, Paine’s provocative essays on various social issues had driven the number of subscribers up from 600 to 1500.

2. JOHN ADAMS WAS RUMORED TO BE THE REAL AUTHOR OF COMMON SENSE.

Paine is primarily remembered, at least in the U.S., for writing Common Sense. Released on January 9 or 10, 1776 (sources differ), the essay championed the idea of American independence and the establishment of a New World republic—two subjects which, by and large, hadn’t been taken seriously in the colonies. Paine later said that the pamphlet sold anywhere from 100,000 to 150,000 copies, but modern historians doubt that.

At first, Common Sense was published anonymously, which led to speculation about who the author might be. In Boston, it was rumored that John Adams had penned the manifesto—but Adams didn’t fully agree with the premise of Common Sense, which he once referred to as a “poor ignorant, malicious, short-sighted, Crapulous Mass.” His biggest criticism involved the author’s call for a new American republic overseen by a unicameral (i.e.: “one-house”) legislature. To rebut Common Sense, Adams anonymously published a pamphlet of his own, titled Thoughts on Government, which advocated the creation of a bicameral legislature as one component of a three-pronged governmental system that would also include a judiciary branch and an elected governor. (Sound familiar?) Paine's identity as the author of Common Sense was revealed on March 30, and Adams, who instantly regretted publishing his tract anonymously, also attached his name in later printings.

3. HE (BRIEFLY) WORKED FOR THE CONTINENTAL CONGRESS.   

Specifically, Paine was brought onboard in April 1777 to serve as the organization’s Secretary to the Committee of Foreign Affairs. Paine was paid $70 a month, and his job consisted of maintaining the committee’s records and drafting letters to American diplomats stationed overseas. But he continued to write essays in support of the revolution on the side, which got him into serious trouble when he publicly mentioned top-secret negotiations with the French. He also made some powerful enemies by accusing diplomat Silas Deane of war-profiteering. In January 1779 Congress began taking steps to remove Paine from his position, but Paine voluntarily resigned.

4. PAINE ONCE DESIGNED AN EXPERIMENTAL KIND OF BRIDGE.

Like Franklin, Paine loved tinkering and was known to invent the occasional product (for example, a “smokeless candle”)—and when the Revolutionary War ended, he turned the world of infrastructure upside down with an inspired new bridge design.

During the late 18th century, the average bridge was constructed mainly out of stones and wood and was typically built with half-circle arches that allowed tall ships to pass beneath them. Unfortunately, steep arches like that forced architects to steeply incline both ends of the road on top of the bridge—a major inconvenience for pedestrians and carriages. It was possible to construct a bridge with support piers in the middle of the span, but ice routinely destroyed these bridges.

Paine came up with a radical alternative. In 1787, he sketched out the blueprint for a bridge with an incline free road made possible by an underlying arch that didn’t curve upwards so sharply. And for resiliency’s sake, he designed the whole thing to be made of iron. Since visual aids are always helpful, Paine built a 13-foot model that he showed off to Pennsylvania statesmen. Hoping to generate more interest, Paine returned to his native England, where he received a government patent for the design.

5. IN THE U.K., SEVERAL PRINTERS WERE ARRESTED FOR SELLING COPIES OF RIGHTS OF MAN.

When France's revolution began in 1789, Paine—who had returned to England—vocally supported the uprising. But of course, not everyone shared his enthusiasm. In 1790, Irish-born politician Edmund Burke released the widely-read pamphlet Reflections on the Revolution in France, wherein he denounced the revolution as a risky and destructive political gamble. In response, Paine began working on Rights of Man, a fervent defense of the rebel cause. (The two-part essay was published in 1791 and 1792.) With its anti-monarchical sentiments, the treatise infuriated Britain’s government—so much so, in fact, that the authorities actually jailed printers who sold The Rights of Man within Great Britain. The prison sentences for guilty parties ranged from a couple of days to seven years in length.

6. THE AGE OF REASON WAS PARTIALLY COMPOSED IN A (RATHER LUXURIOUS) PRISON.  

Controversial as it was in Britain, Rights of Man was wildly popular in France. So when Paine fled there in 1792, he was greeted with open arms—at first. Shortly after his arrival, Paine was elected as a member of the country’s National Assembly, but he was soon stirring up controversy. Paine spoke out against guillotine usage and King Louis XVI’s execution, and on December 28, 1793, the political thinker was charged with treason, probably because of his stance on capital punishment (though the rationale behind this accusation remains unclear). Paine was taken to Luxembourg Prison, a palace-turned-jail where he was given a spacious room and free rein to explore the rest of the building during daylight hours. Inside, he busied himself with a new pamphlet he’d begun writing before his arrest: The Age of Reason; Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology.A critique of organized religion. The two-part document questioned the Bible’s legitimacy and made the case for Deism, the belief in a creator-God who doesn’t interfere with world affairs or the lives of individual people. Naturally, the text triggered passionate debate on both sides of the Atlantic, and still does so today.   

7. HE OPENLY CRITICIZED THE WASHINGTON ADMINISTRATION.  

James Monroe, then America’s minister to France, arranged to have Paine released from the Luxembourg in November 1794. While in prison, Paine had developed a grudge against President Washington, whom he’d admired during the American Revolution. As Monroe informed James Madison, “He thinks the president winked at his imprisonment and wished he might die in gaol [jail], and bears his resentment for it; also he is preparing an attack upon him of the most virulent kind.”

Just as Monroe said, Paine wrote a blistering open letter to Washington in 1796. Lambasting the president for not interceding on his behalf when the French seized him, Paine went on to accuse America’s chief executive of being a closeted monarchist. “Monopolies of every kind marked your administration almost in the moment of its commencement,” the pamphleteer charged. “The lands obtained by the Revolution were lavished upon partisans; the interest of the disbanded soldier was sold to the speculator … In what fraudulent light must Mr. Washington’s character appear in the world, when his declarations and his conduct are compared together!”

Americans of just about every political stripe were outraged by Paine's statements. Combined with a strong backlash to The Age of Reason, the anti-Washington tirade brought Paine’s popularity to an all-time low in the states.

8. HE CALLED FOR AN EARLY VERSION OF SOCIAL SECURITY.

Paine spent the winter of 1795-'96 at Monroe’s home in Paris, where he authored what’s often considered his last great pamphlet, Agrarian Justice. In it, he recommended the establishment of a “National Fund” financed by 10 percent tax on inherited property. Money from this fund would then be redistributed: All citizens (of both genders) above the age of 50 or with disabilities were to receive a yearly stipend. Furthermore, every single citizen could also expect a one-time payment of 15 pounds sterling upon turning 21. “It is not a charity but a right,” Paine declared, “not bounty but justice.”

9. MOST OF HIS REMAINS ARE UNACCOUNTED FOR.

In 1802, at the invitation of President Jefferson, Paine returned to the U.S. For a time, he resided at a 277-acre farm in New Rochelle that had been gifted to him by the New York State Legislature in 1784. Unhappy with his life there, Paine relocated to Manhattan, where he died on June 8, 1809.

Paine was laid to rest on his New Rochelle farm without much fanfare; in fact, the service may have been attended by as few as five people. Strangely, though, Paine’s travels hadn’t ended yet. In 1819, a British admirer by the name of William Cobbett snuck onto the property and dug up the dead author’s body. Believing that Paine deserved to be buried in his birthland, Cobbett boxed up bones and took them back to London. But after years of trying to build a suitable memorial, Cobbett died himself. Paine’s bones were gradually sold off, and their current whereabouts remain a mystery. (However, the Thomas Paine Museum in New Rochelle does have a few strands of his hair under lock and key, and his mummified brain stem has been buried there in an undisclosed location.)

10. MARK TWAIN WAS AN ADMIRER.

Despite his contributions to the country’s revolution, most Americans held Paine in low regard throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. When he died, the New York Post Evening Post helped set the tone with a eulogy that read “he had lived long, done some good and much harm.” Other posthumous statements about Paine were even less charitable: Theodore Roosevelt famously called him a “filthy little atheist.” In the Gilded Age, he was so widely disliked that when a freethinking sculptor gifted Philadelphia’s Independence Hall with a marble Paine bust in 1876, the city refused to accept it.

Nevertheless, he still maintained an underground fan base in those days. One of the most famous Paine enthusiasts of all time was Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. A celebrated critic of organized religion, Clemens was particularly keen on the ever-controversial Age of Reason. In his words, “It took a brave man before the Civil War to confess he had read” the pamphlet. Paine’s pro-deism treatise made an appearance in Those Extraordinary Twins (1894), one of Twain’s manuscripts that centered on a pair of conjoined brothers with wildly different personalities. To help accentuate their dissimilarities, the very first chapter sees one of them reading Christian devotionals while his counterpart flips through The Age of Reason.

11. THOMAS EDISON HELPED BREAK GROUND ON THE THOMAS PAINE MEMORIAL MUSEUM.   

In 1884, the Thomas Paine National Historical Association was founded, and in 1925, Edison became vice president of the group. “Paine’s teachings have been debarred from schools everywhere and his views of life misrepresented until his memory is hidden in shadows, or he is looked upon as of unsound mind,” Edison said. “We never had a sounder intelligence in this Republic [than Paine]. He was the equal of Washington in making American liberty possible. Where Washington performed, Paine devised and wrote. The deeds of one in the Weld were matched by the deeds of the other with his pen.”

Today, the association maintains the cottage Paine owned in New Rochelle along with the nearby Thomas Paine Memorial Museum. Construction on the latter began in the spring of 1925—and once the project broke ground, it was Edison who had the honor of turning the first shovel of dirt. Since then, Paine’s reputation in America and elsewhere has considerably improved. Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan both admiringly quoted him in their presidential addresses. A golden Paine statue has been erected in Thetford, England. And in 2002, he was ranked number 34 on the BBC’s list of the 100 greatest Britons of all time. 

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15 Reasons You Should Appreciate Squirrels
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Even if you live in a big city, you probably see wildlife on a regular basis. Namely, you're sure to run into a lot of squirrels, even in the densest urban areas. And if you happen to live on a college campus, well, you're probably overrun with them. While some people might view them as adorable, others see them as persistent pests bent on chewing on and nesting in everything in sight. But in honor of National Squirrel Appreciation Day, here are 15 reasons you should appreciate the savvy, amazing, bushy-tailed critters.

1. THEY CAN JUMP REALLY, REALLY FAR.

A flying squirrel soars through the air
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In one study [PDF] of the tree-dwelling plantain squirrels that roam the campus of the National University of Singapore, squirrels were observed jumping almost 10 feet at a stretch. In another study with the eastern ground squirrel, one researcher observed a squirrel jumping more than 8 feet between a tree stump and a feeding platform, propelling itself 10 times the length of its body. Flying squirrels, obviously, can traverse much farther distances midair—the northern flying squirrel, for instance, can glide up to 295 feet [PDF].

2. THEY'RE VERY ORGANIZED …

A squirrel digs in a grassy field filled with fallen leaves.
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In fact, they may be more organized than you are. A recent study found that eastern fox squirrels living on UC Berkeley's campus cache their nuts according to type. When given a mixture of walnuts, pecans, almonds, and hazelnuts, the squirrels took the time to hide each type of nut in a specific place. This method of "spatial chunking" may help them remember where the nuts are when they go to retrieve them later. Though the study wasn't able to determine this for sure, the study's results suggested that the squirrels may have been organizing their caches by even more subtle categories, like the size of the nuts.

3. … BUT THEIR FORGETFULNESS HELPS TREES GROW.

Looking up a tree trunk at a squirrel climbing down
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Tree squirrels are one of the most important animals around when it comes to planting forests. Though they may be careful about where they bury their acorns and other nuts, they still forget about quite a few of their caches (or at least neglect to retrieve them). When they do, those acorns often sprout, resulting in more trees—and eventually, yet more acorns for the squirrels.

4. THEY HELP TRUFFLES THRIVE.

A man holds a truffle up for the camera.
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The squirrel digestive system also plays an important role in the survival of truffles. While above-ground mushrooms can spread their spores through the air, truffles grow below ground. Instead of relying on the air, they depend on hungry animals like squirrels to spread their spores to host plants elsewhere. The northern flying squirrel, found in forests across North America, depends largely on the buried fungi to make up its diet, and plays a major role in truffle propagation. The squirrels poop out the spores unharmed on the forest floor, allowing the fungi to take hold and form a symbiotic relationship with the tree roots it's dropped near.

5. THEY'RE ONE OF THE FEW MAMMALS THAT CAN SPRINT DOWN A TREE HEAD-FIRST.

A squirrel stands on the knot of a tree trunk looking down at the ground.
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You may not be too impressed when you see a squirrel running down a tree, but they're actually accomplishing a major feat. Most animals can't climb vertically down head-first, but squirrel's back ankles can rotate 180°, turning their paws all the way around to grip the tree trunk as they descend.

6. SEVERAL TOWNS COMPETE FOR THE TITLE OF 'HOME OF THE WHITE SQUIRREL.'

A white squirrel in Olney, Illinois stands on its hind legs.
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Squirrels are a more popular town mascot than you might think. Surprisingly, more than one town wants to be known as the "home of the white squirrel," including Kenton, Tennessee; Marionville, Missouri; the Canadian city of Exeter, Ontario; and Brevard, North Carolina, the location of the annual White Squirrel Festival. But Olney, Illinois may be the most intense about its high population of albino squirrels. There is a $750 fine for killing the all-white animals, and they have the legal right-of-way on roads. There's an official city count of the squirrels each year, and in 1997, realizing that local cats posed a threat to the beloved rodent residents, the city council banned residents from letting their cats run loose outdoors. In 2002, the city held a 100-Year White Squirrel Celebration, erecting a monument and holding a "squirrel blessing" by a priest. Police officers wore special squirrel-themed patches for the event.

7. THEY CAN AID STROKE RESEARCH.

An illustration of different regions of the brain lighting up in blue
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Ground squirrels hibernate in the winter, and the way their brains function while they do may help scientists develop a new drug that can limit the brain damage caused by strokes. When ground squirrels hibernate, their core body temperature drops dramatically—in the case of the arctic ground squirrel, to as low as 26.7°F, possibly the lowest body temperature of any mammal on Earth. During this extra-cold hibernation, a squirrel's brain undergoes cellular changes that help its brain deal with reduced blood flow. Researchers are currently trying to develop a drug that could mimic that process in the human brain, preventing brain cells from dying when blood flow to the brain is cut off during a stroke.

8. THEIR FUR MAY HAVE SPREAD LEPROSY IN THE MIDDLE AGES.

A woman in a fur vest with a hood faces away from the camera and stares out over the water.
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If you always warn your friends not to pet or feed squirrels because they can spread disease, put this story in your back pocket for later: They may have helped leprosy spread from Scandinavia to the UK in the 9th century. Research published in 2017 found a strain of leprosy similar to a modern variant found in squirrels in southern England in the skull of a woman who lived in England sometime between 885 and 1015 CE. The scientists suggest that the leprosy may have arrived along with Viking squirrel pelts. "It is possible that this strain of leprosy was proliferated in the South East of England by contact with highly prized squirrel pelt and meat, which was traded by the Vikings at the time this woman was alive," one of the authors told The Guardian. That may not be the most uplifting reason to appreciate squirrels, but it's hard not to admire their influence!

9. THEY'RE MORE POWERFUL THAN HACKERS.

A squirrel runs across a power line.
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While energy companies may worry about hackers disrupting the power grid, squirrels are actually far more powerful than cyber-whizzes when it comes to sabotaging our electricity supply. A website called Cyber Squirrel 1 documents every public record of squirrels and other animals disrupting power services dating back to 1987. It has counted more than 1100 squirrel-related outages across the world for that time period, which is no doubt a vast underestimate. In a 2016 survey of public power utilities, wildlife was the most common cause of power outages, and for most power companies, that tends to mean squirrels.

10. THEY CAN HEAT UP THEIR TAILS TO WARD OFF PREDATORS.

A ground squirrel sits with its mouth open.
David McNew, Getty Images

California ground squirrels have an interesting way of scaring off rattlesnakes. Like cats, their tails puff up when they go on the defense. A squirrel will wave its tail at a rattlesnake to convince the snake that it's a formidable opponent. Surprisingly, they whip their tails at their foes whether it's light or dark outside. Squirrels can control the blood flow to their tails to cool down or keep warm, and they use this to their advantage in a fight, pumping blood into their tails. Even if the rattlesnakes can't see the bushy tails, researchers found in 2007, they can sense the heat coming off them.

11. THEY HELP SCIENTISTS KNOW WHETHER A FOREST IS HEALTHY.

A squirrel runs down a tree trunk toward a pile of leaves.
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Researchers look at tree squirrel populations to measure just how well a forest ecosystem is faring. Because they depend on their forest habitats for seeds, nesting sites, and food storage, the presence and demographics of tree squirrels in an area is a good bellwether for the health of a mature forest. Studying changes in squirrel populations can help experts determine the environmental impact of logging, fires, and other events that alter forest habitats [PDF].

12. THEY CAN LIE.

A squirrel with a bushy tail stands on its hind legs.
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Gray squirrels know how to deceive. They can engage in what's called "tactical deception," a behavior previously only seen in primates, as a study in 2008 found. When they think they're being watched by someone looking to pilfer their cache of food, the researchers discovered, they will pretend to dig a hole as if burying their acorn or nut, but tuck their snack into their mouth and go bury it elsewhere.

13. THEY WERE ONCE AMERICA'S MOST POPULAR PET.

A man in a hat kisses a squirrel on the White House grounds
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Though some states currently ban (or require permits for) keeping squirrels as pets, it was once commonplace. Warren G. Harding kept a squirrel named Pete who would sometimes show up to White House meetings and briefings, where members of Harding's cabinet would bring him nuts. But keeping a squirrel around wasn't just for world leaders—the rodent was the most popular pet in the country, according to Atlas Obscura. From the 1700s onwards, squirrels were a major fixture in the American pet landscape and were sold in pet shops. Despite Harding's love of Pete, by the time he lived in the White House in the 1920s, squirrel ownership was already on the wane, in part due to the rise of exotic animal laws.

14. THE MERE SIGHT OF JUST ONE COULD ONCE ATTRACT A CROWD.

A historical photo of nurses leaning down to feed a black squirrel
Library of Congress // Public Domain

The American cities of the 1800s weren't great places to catch a glimpse of wildlife, squirrels included. In fact, the animals were so rare that in the summer of 1856, when a gray squirrel escaped from its cage inside a downtown New York apartment building (where it was surely living as someone's pet), it merited a write-up in The New York Times. According to the paper, several hundred people gathered to gawk at the tree where the squirrel took refuge and try to coax the rodent down. In the end, a police officer had to force the crowd to disperse. The paper did not document what happened to the poor squirrel.

15. IN THE 19TH CENTURY, THEY WERE TASKED WITH TEACHING COMPASSION.

A boy doing homework with a squirrel on the table.
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In the mid-1800s, seeking to return a little bit of nature to concrete jungles, cities began re-introducing squirrels to their urban parks. Squirrels provided a rare opportunity for city slickers to see wildlife, but they were also seen as a sort of moral compass for young boys. Observing and feeding urban squirrels was seen as a way to steer boys away from their "tendency toward cruelty," according to University of Pennsylvania historian Etienne Benson [PDF]. Boy Scouts founder Ernest Thompson Seton argued in a 1914 article that cities should introduce "missionary squirrels" to cities so that boys could befriend them. He and other advocates of urban squirrels "saw [them] as opportunities for boys to establish trusting, sympathetic, and paternalistic relationships with animal others," Benson writes.

But young boys weren't the only ones that were thought to benefit from a little squirrel-feeding time. When the animals were first reintroduced to parks in the 19th century, feeding squirrels was considered an act of charity—one accessible even to those people who didn't have the means of showing charity in other realms. "Because of the presence of urban squirrels, even the least powerful members of human society could demonstrate the virtue of charity and display their own moral worth," Benson writes. "Gray squirrels helped reshape the American urban park into a site for the performance of charity and compassion for the weak." Even if you were too poor to provide any sort of charity for someone else, you could at least give back to the squirrels.

BONUS: THEY USED TO HATE TAX SEASON TOO.

A colored lithograph shows men and dogs hunting squirrels in a forest.
Currier and Ives, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Though notably absent from big cities, much of the U.S. was once overrun by squirrels. The large population of gray squirrels in early Ohio caused such widespread crop destruction that people were encouraged—nay, required—to hunt them. In 1807, the Ohio General Assembly demanded that citizens not just pay their regular taxes, but add a few squirrel carcasses on top. According to the Ohio History Connection, taxpayers had to submit a minimum of 10 squirrel scalps to the town clerk each year. Tennessee had similar laws, though that state would let people pay in dead crows if they couldn't rustle up enough squirrels.

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The Plucky Teenage Stowaway Aboard the First American Expedition to Antarctica
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Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laurie Gwen Shapiro came across the name "William Gawronski" in 2013 while researching a story about Manhattan's St. Stanislaus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the U.S. In 1930, more than 500 kids from the church had held a parade in honor of Billy Gawronski, who had just returned from two years aboard the first American expedition to Antarctica, helmed by naval officer Richard E. Byrd.

The teenager had joined the expedition in a most unusual way: by stowing aboard Byrd's ships the City of New York and the Eleanor Bolling not once, not twice, but four times total. He swam across the Hudson River to sneak onto the City of New York and hitchhiked all the way to Virginia to hide on the Eleanor Bolling.

"I thought, 'Wait, what?" Shapiro tells Mental Floss.

Intrigued by Billy's persistence and pluck, Shapiro dove into the public records and newspaper archives to learn more about him. She created an Excel spreadsheet of Gawronskis all along the East Coast and began cold-calling them.

"Imagine saying, 'Did you have an ancestor that jumped in the Hudson and stowed away to the Antarctic in 1928?'" Shapiro says. She got "a lot of hang-ups."

On the 19th call, to a Gawronski in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, an elderly woman with a Polish accent answered the phone. "That boy was my husband," Gizela Gawronski told her. Billy had died in 1981, leaving behind a treasure trove of mementos, including scrapbooks, notebooks, yearbooks, and hundreds of photos.

"I have everything," Gizela told Shapiro. "I was hoping someone would find me one day."

Three days later, Shapiro was in Maine poring over Billy's papers with Gizela, tears in her eyes.

These materials became the basis of Shapiro's new book The Stowaway: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. It's a rollicking good read full of fascinating history and bold characters that takes readers from New York to Tahiti, New Zealand to Antarctica, and back to New York again. It's brimming with the snappy energy and open-minded optimism of the Jazz Age.

Shapiro spent six weeks in Antarctica herself to get a feel for Billy's experiences. "I wanted to reach the Ross Ice barrier like Billy did," she says.

Read on for an excerpt from chapter four.

***

As night dropped on September 15, Billy jumped out of his second-floor window and onto the garden, a fall softened by potatoes and cabbage plants and proudly photographed sunflowers. You would think that the boy had learned from his previous stowaway attempt to bring more food or a change of dry clothes. Not the case.

An overnight subway crossing into Brooklyn took him to the Tebo Yacht Basin in Gowanus. He made for the location he'd written down in his notes: Third Avenue and Twenty-Third Street.

In 1928 William Todd's Tebo Yacht Basin was a resting spot— the spot—for the yachts of the Atlantic seaboard's most aristocratic and prosperous residents. The swanky yard berthed more than fifty staggering prizes of the filthy rich. Railroad executive Cornelius Vanderbilt kept his yacht O-We-Ra here; John Vanneck, his Amphitrite. Here was also where to find Warrior, the largest private yacht afloat, owned by the wealthiest man in America, public utilities baron Harrison Williams; yeast king (and former mayor of Cincinnati) Julian Fleischman's $625,000 twin-screw diesel yacht, the Carmago; General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan's Rene; shoe scion H. W. Hanan's Dauntless; and J. P. Morgan's Corsair III. The Tebo Yacht Basin's clubroom served fish chowder luncheons to millionaires in leather-backed mission chairs.

Todd, a great friend of Byrd's, lavished attention on his super-connected pal with more contacts than dollars. He had provided major funding for Byrd's 1926 flight over the North Pole, and helped the commander locate and refit two of the four Antarctic expedition ships for $285,900, done at cost. Todd loved puffy articles about him as much as the next man, and press would help extract cash from the millionaires he actively pursued as new clients; helping out a famous friend might prove cheaper than the advertisements he placed in upmarket magazines. Throughout that summer, Byrd mentioned Todd's generous support frequently.

Two weeks after the City of New York set sail, the Chelsea, the supply ship of the expedition, was still docked at the Tebo workyard and not scheduled to depart until the middle of September. Smith's Dock Company in England had built the refurbished 170-foot, 800-ton iron freighter for the British Royal Navy at the tail end of the Great War. First christened patrol gunboat HMS Kilmarnock, her name was changed to the Chelsea during her post–Royal Navy rumrunning days.

Not long before she was scheduled to depart, Byrd announced via a press release that he was renaming this auxiliary ship, too, after his mother, Eleanor Bolling. But the name painted on the transom was Eleanor Boling, with one l—the painter's mistake. As distressing as this was (the name was his mother's, after all), Byrd felt a redo would be too expensive and a silly use of precious funds. Reporters and PR staff were simply instructed to always spell the name with two ls.

As Billy eyed the ship in dock days after his humiliation on board the New York, he realized here was another way to get to Antarctica. The old, rusty-sided cargo ship would likely be less guarded than the flagship had been.

As September dragged on, Billy, back in Bayside, stiffened his resolve. No one would think he'd try again! On September 15, once more he swam out during the night to board a vessel bound for Antarctica.

Since his visit two weeks prior, Billy had studied his news clippings and knew that the Bolling was captained by thirty-six-year-old Gustav L. Brown, who'd been promoted weeks earlier from first mate of the New York when Byrd added the fourth ship to his fleet. Billy liked what he read. According to those who sailed under Brown's command, this tall and slender veteran of the Great War was above all genteel, and far less crotchety than the New York's Captain Melville. Captain Brown's education went only as far as high school, and while he wasn't against college, he admired honest, down-to-earth workers. Like his colleague Captain Melville, Brown had begun a seafaring life at fourteen. He seemed just the sort of man to take a liking to a teenage stowaway with big dreams.

Alas, the crew of the second ship headed to Antarctica now knew to look for stowaways. In a less dramatic repeat of what had happened in Hoboken, an Eleanor Bolling seaman ousted Billy in the earliest hours of the morning. The kid had (unimaginatively) hidden for a second time in a locker under the lower forecastle filled with mops and bolts and plumbing supplies. The sailor brought him to Captain Brown, who was well named, as he was a man with a mass of brown hair and warm brown eyes. The kind captain smiled at Billy and praised the cheeky boy's gumption—his Swedish accent still heavy even though he'd made Philadelphia his home since 1920—yet Billy was escorted off to the dock and told to scram.

A few hours later, still under the cover of night, Billy stole back on board and was routed out a third time, again from the “paint locker.”

A third time? The Bolling's third in command, Lieutenant Harry Adams, took notes on the gutsy kid who had to be good material for the lucrative book he secretly hoped to pen. Most of the major players would score book deals after the expedition; the public was eager for adventure, or at least so publishers thought. The catch was that any deal had to be approved by Byrd: to expose any discord was to risk powerful support. Adams's book, Beyond the Barrier with Byrd: An Authentic Story of the Byrd Antarctic Exploring Expedition, was among the best: more character study than thriller, his grand sense of humor evident in his selection of anecdotes that the others deemed too lightweight to include.

Billy was not the only stowaway that September day. Also aboard was a girl Adams called Sunshine, the "darling of the expedition," a flirt who offered to anyone who asked that she wanted to be the first lady in Antarctica. (In the restless era between world wars, when movies gave everyone big dreams, even girl stowaways were not uncommon.) Brown told a reporter that Sunshine had less noble aspirations, and soon she, too, was removed from the Bolling, but not before she gave each crew member a theatrical kiss.

As the early sun rose, Captain Brown called Billy over to him from the yacht yard's holding area where he had been asked to wait with the giggling Sunshine until his father arrived. The captain admired Billy's gumption, but it was time for the seventeen-year-old to go now and not waste any more of anyone's time.

As Lieutenant Adams recorded later, "Perhaps this matter of getting rid of Bill was entered up in the Eleanor Bolling log as the first scientific achievement of the Byrd Antarctic expedition."

*** 

From THE STOWAWAY: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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