BackStory’s Year In Review
As 2016 comes to a close, BackStory takes a look at the stories that resonated most with our audience. Here are the 10 most popular blog stories from this year:
- Jan. 12, 2016 – Lottery Fever by Diana Williams
The lead up to the largest lottery jackpot to date – the $1.6B Powerball jackpot hit on Jan. 13 and had only one ticket match all numbers, sold to John and Lisa Robinson of Munford, Tennessee – had Americans going crazy with dreams of hitting it big. BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist Diana Williams wrote about past lotteries and how Americans didn’t always look at them favorably.
- Jan. 16, 2016 – A Good Fellow by Melissa Gismondi
UVA PhD student (in history, of course!) and BackStory researcher Melissa Gismondi told the story of Murray Hall, a New York City politician who was remembered as a “man who liked cigars, poker, and good-looking women.” Hall was outed as a woman on a coroner’s report shortly after his death in 1901 and buried in women’s clothing. The subsequent news coverage started a conversation about gender fluidity decades before the term – and any idea of what it meant – entered the American lexicon.
- Jan. 31, 2016 – Murder Was The Case by Diana Williams
Before Aaron Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton, the two frenemies teamed up to defend Levi Weeks, a young man accused of murdering his alleged lover and disposing of her body in a Manhattan, New York well.
- Feb. 29, 2016 – “To My Old Master” by Diana Williams
In September of 1848, Frederick Douglass wrote to his former slave master, Thomas Auld. The beautifully written letter had made the rounds on the internet earlier this year. It left us wondering what happened after the letter was published. We turned to Yale historian David W. Blight for answers.
- Mar. 31, 2016 – The Best Little Whorehouse in NOLA by Diana Williams
While the Guys were discussing local power on the podcast, the blog explored local power through the eyes of one of New Orleans’ most beloved characters, Norma Wallace. Wallace was a smart, savvy businesswoman who just happened to be a madam. We talked to Chris Wiltz, who wrote a book about Wallace’s life.
- June 10, 2016 – Let’s Rap! by Ramona Martinez
“Hamilton” the musical swept both the country and the classroom. BackStory associate producer Ramona Martinez looked at how American students were both paying homage to A. Ham and enjoying their history classes by spitting rhymes Lin-Manuel Miranda style.
- July 1, 2016 – Top 10 Historian-Approved Historical Fiction by Melissa Gismondi
Melissa Gismondi is a voracious reader and has a knack for selecting books that appeal to history buffs – both amateur and professional. Her 2016 summer reading selections were for lovers of historical fiction.
- Sept. 12, 2016 – Land of the Free, Home of the Oppressed by Elizabeth McCauley
Colin Kaepernick took a knee and suddenly, many Americans were up in arms. Kaepernick’s act of kneeling during the national anthem, his way of peacefully protesting police brutality, sparked a media frenzy with many calling him unpatriotic. Some pointed out that the Star Spangled Banner has racist overtones and actually adds further insult to the injury many black Americans feel. BackStory fall intern Elizabeth McCauley asked former “Washington Post” editor Jefferson Morley to help us get to the bottom of the controversy by looking at the anthem’s history.
- Oct. 9, 2016 – Baldwin v. Buckley by Aidan Lee
In 1965, James Baldwin and William F. Buckley debated whether American progress had been made at the expense of African Americans. BackStory student writer Aidan Lee caught up with BackStory host Brian Balogh to gain insight on the impact of the debate and learn why its message still lives in contemporary discussions about race.
- Nov. 18, 2016 – Think Faithless Electors Will Change The Outcome of the 2016 Presidential Election? Think Again. by Diana Williams
Hillary Clinton earned 2.9 million more votes than President-elect Donald Trump. Still viewed by many as a stunning loss, the 2016 election had many questioning, again, the existence of the electoral college. With so many petitioning electors to change their minds, BackStory took a look at past examples of faithless electors and asked historians the odds of the faithless changing the election’s outcome.
Bonus stories from our photo blog:
- Aug. 8, 2016 – Coming To America
See what it was like to arrive in America via Ellis Island between 1902 and 1913.
- Oct. 31, 2016 – Creepy Tales From UVA Grounds
In honor of Halloween, BackStory fall intern Peyton Wall shared ghost stories and other ghoulish tales from the Grounds of the University of Virginia.
The largest jackpot in PowerBall history got a lot larger when no one selected the winning numbers again on Saturday night, and the nation’s lottery fever continues. The jackpot now stands at an estimated $1.3B, and as Americans gear up for the next round on Wednesday, it’s hard not to wonder how this all got started.
Lotteries in the United States go back as far as the country’s founders. In fact, England permitted the Virginia Company, which was deeply in debt, to hold a lottery to support the Jamestown colony in 1612. But the Virginia Company wouldn’t be alone in looking to a lottery as a quick way to get out of debt.
Crowdfunding, Old School Style – Early American Lotteries
Toward the end of his life, founding father Thomas Jefferson was financially in over his head, too. He enlisted the help of his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, who petitioned the Virginia legislature in January of 1826 to allow Jefferson to dispose of some of his assets by holding a lottery, according to Peter Onuf.
“The idea came to Thomas Jefferson ‘like an inspiration from the realms of bliss’,” said Onuf, 18th Century Guy at BackStory with the American History Guys and professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, in an email. Despite the efforts of Randolph, who traveled as far as New York City, Onuf said the lottery results were “pretty dismal.” Jefferson died later the same year, $100,000 in debt, and his estate, including Monticello, was liquidated.
Early Americans used lotteries much like the crowdfunding of today—as a quick way to generate cash. Lotteries cropped up frequently in the South and “were a perfect way to accomplish big things in places where there was not much cash,” according to Ed Ayers, BackStory’s 19th Century Guy and president emeritus at the University of Richmond.
Ayers cited the example of William Byrd III, son of the founder of Richmond, Va. Byrd, deep in debt thanks to a gambling habit, organized a lottery in an attempt to cash in the lands he had inherited from his father, William Byrd II. Again, the lottery failed to generate the attention and monies needed, and Byrd later committed suicide.
The instability of the lottery system was just one of many reasons why lotteries started to lose favor, according to Matthew Sweeney, author of “The Lottery Wars: Long Odds, Fast Money, and the Battle Over an American Institution.” Colonial Americans would organize lotteries hoping for the best, but would often fall short of their goals, sometimes adding to their problems. Later came the notion that lotteries were morally wrong, an idea first pushed by religious groups like the Quakers in the 18th century and further driven home by Horatio Alger, a 19th century author known for his rags-to-riches stories, Sweeney added.
Sweeney described the beginning of the 19th century lottery backlash as the Horatio Alger feeling. This was a feeling that “lotteries were the enemy of thrift,” said Sweeney. “They were the enemy of bootstrap, of rising up, of the American spirit.” He said that Alger saw lotteries as evil and that idea spread.
Wouldn’t You Like to Win This Lovely Piece of Tape? – Corruption and the Lottery Backlash
Colonial lotteries were forms of entertainment in addition to gambling. They were also used to fund large-scale projects, like libraries, and to build infrastructure. Sweeney said people turned to lotteries rather than investors because there was strong opposition to taxes and a lack of a sophisticated system of funding, like banks. Eventually, however, banks stopped being crude and lottery corruption started being rampant.
In P. T. Barnum’s autobiography, published in 1888, Barnum bragged about a lottery scheme he concocted to unload glass bottles and old tinware he’d received in a bartering deal while managing a store in Bethel, Conn. “Some of the customers were vexed,” he wrote, when they learned of their prizes. Barnum also recalled a woman who had drawn five dollars and arrived at his store to find herself the not-so-proud owner of several of the bottles as well as a piece of tape, a spool of cotton and other worthless items. She begged to be paid in other goods, but Barnum told her it “would be contrary to the rules of the establishment.”
By the mid-19th century, a lottery based in New Orleans may have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. At this point, almost every state had banned lotteries on the grounds of morality and/or corruption. But the Louisiana State Lottery Company held on. This privately owned behemoth was known as the Octopus, earning the nickname, Sweeney wrote in his book, “because its arms reached into every state and city.”
According to “Lottery Wars” the Octopus was equipped with an army of lobbyists, notorious for bribing city officials. It was so corrupt, and so big, that it was difficult to topple. It used mail-order to reach into every state, actually beating Montgomery Ward to the title of “first nationwide mail-order business in the country,” according to Sweeney.
But mail-order proved to be the Louisiana lottery’s Achilles heel. Sweeney said that the Octopus “spread like wildfire,” because of the postal service, but added that its rapid growth contributed to the sense that it was a corrupt game. That feeling ultimately led the federal government to step in: In 1890, Congress outlawed the sending of any lottery-related materials through the mail, and with that, the lottery was dead in the United States, until New Hampshire succeeded in getting a sweepstakes bill passed in 1963.
We’re Funding Public Education. Just Kidding. – Modern Lotteries
Like the prohibition on alcohol during the early part of the 20th century, the ban on lotteries left room for lucrative illegal activity. Jonathan Cohen, a UVA PhD student researching the cultural history of lotteries, said that illegal lotteries, like numbers running, were big business in America’s cities, especially for African-Americans. In fact, Cohen noted that the “New York State Lottery struggled in its early years because it offered only “passive” games.” He further explained that New York’s legal games were “akin to raffles, whereas the still-popular illegal games allowed players to choose their own numbers.” Cohen said it wasn’t until the promise of bigger prizes through state-sponsored games during the 1980s that illegal games met their demise.
While many states intend for lottery revenue to fund things like public education, and players may like to think that’s what happens, the money actually goes right into states’ general funds, according to Cohen. In an email, Cohen broke the average state’s lottery distribution down like this:
- 50 percent goes to prizes
- 5 to 12 percent goes to operating costs
- 40 to 45 percent goes to the state
Players have also been sold the idea that lottery revenue offsets their tax burdens and solves state budget issues. Also not true, said Cohen, in an email. “In reality, lotteries are relatively insignificant sources of state revenue, providing, on average, just above 1% of total income in lottery states in 2013 (the most recent year for which full data is available).”
Some states, including Arizona and Maryland, use a portion of lottery revenue to address problem gambling. Even though playing the lottery is addictive, it’s not the only form of gambling, and while compulsive gambling poses its own set of social issues, including crime (which is ultimately very costly to states), we have yet to see the type of backlash experienced in the past, said Cohen.
However, Cohen cautions that massive jackpots, like the one accumulating for Wednesday, may cause a re-emergence of political opposition. Until then, good luck, and in the words of the Kentucky Lottery’s motto: “Somebody’s gotta win, might as well be you.”
BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist
We Hold This Punctuation to Be Self-Evident…
We began our show on happiness with a big debate over a tiny mark. A period — or maybe a comma? It’s found in the
Declaration of Independence, right after that part about the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” It’s the sort of thing scholars love to argue about.
A comma — or a period. It’s not an easy question to answer, actually. The Declaration’s original parchment is really faded. All you see in that spot now is a smudge.
The most common reproduction of the Declaration — what you see on souvenir mugs and in textbooks — shows a period. But that version was copied from an engraving of the original made in 1823.
It doesn’t help that Thomas Jefferson didn’t include a period in any of his drafts of the Declaration — sometimes he used a comma, sometimes a semi-colon.
To get to the bottom of this debate, we sent reporter Jessica Smith to a recent conference at the National Archives called Punctuating Happiness, where scholars did what they do best – debated how punctuation could change Jefferson’s meaning of happiness. Listen to the whole story above.
This story comes from our episode The Pursuit: A History of Happiness. You can listen to more stories from that show here.
A Mammoth Mistake
100 years before Darwin, another natural scientist was hard at work trying to explain Earth’s biological diversity. Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, the 18th-century’s best-known natural scientist, was the author of a huge encyclopedia called Histoire Naturelle that put forward a kind of proto-evolutionary theory. Buffon’s idea was that the environment directly shaped organisms’ development through what he called “organic particles”.
The 44 volumes of Histoire Naturelle set the stage for Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. But it was the fifth volume, which discussed an idea called American degeneracy, that caught the attention of Thomas Jefferson. This theory basically proposed that the cold and damp climate of the American continent stunted the growth of America’s flora and fauna (including the humans born there), making them naturally weaker and smaller than their Old World counterparts.
As you might guess, this idea was not very well received in America. Thomas Jefferson devoted a significant chunk of his only book, Notes on the State of Virginia, to disproving Buffon’s idea. Notes on Virginia compares the relative sizes of species on both sides of the Atlantic, making the point that accurate data would show there was no such thing as degeneration. If anything, Jefferson suggested, American animals were bigger.
If you read Jefferson’s book today, some of his data might seem a little off. In fact, one of the main animals that Jefferson used to prove his point was the mammoth— the same mammoth that, we now know, went extinct thousands of years earlier. Even Jefferson seems to have realized that his argument was far from airtight. Says Lee Dugatkin, biologist at the University of Louisville,
“Jefferson, who we think of as, sort of, the quintessential logical person, really has to twist and turn to make his arguments about the mammoth being still here. What he says is, ‘People ask me, well, where is the evidence that it’s out West?’. And his answer is, ‘Show me the evidence that it isn’t.’ Which is– for Jefferson, that’s a bit of a weak argument. One senses that he knew that. But that’s all he was left with, and so that’s what he used.”
For Jefferson, the question of American degeneracy was less about the facts of natural history and more about the fate of the nation. He was afraid that Europeans, particularly Europeans with money, would accept Buffon’s theory and be less willing to trade with or emigrate to America. He saw Buffon’s theory as an insult to the American people and a prediction that their experiment in government would fail. Other early American naturalists agreed, says Dugatkin.
“If you look at the early school of American natural history, you find these wonderful letters where they write each other that what should drive them is not only their love for nature, and their passion for the subject, but national pride. We need to demonstrate to the world that this place– America– is just as beautiful, just as strong, in possession of just the incredible animals that the rest of the world is in possession of. Because it paints a picture of us as not only an emerging republic, but an emerging place where people are strong and where nature is powerful.”
Even though he knew he wouldn’t be able to lay hands on a mammoth, Jefferson felt that he needed hard proof to discredit Buffon’s theory. So, he took the logical next step: ask his friends to find him a giant moose that he could then deliver to Buffon.
The moose was in some ways an even better choice than the mammoth. Not only was it giant by both American and European standards (Jefferson specifically requested one between seven and ten feet tall), but it was an animal very much alive and well-known on the American continent.
General John Sullivan from New Hampshire eventually delivered on Jefferson’s call for a moose, and managed to ship it over to France around 1786. But by that time, Buffon was already in his mid 70’s and gravely ill. He saw the moose, but, as Dugatkin explains, Jefferson’s victory was incomplete.
“Buffon dies very shortly thereafter, and he doesn’t pull back the theory of New World degeneracy. So Jefferson knew that Buffon knew that Jefferson was right, and that gave him a bit of solace. But he was quite concerned that this theory of New World degeneracy was going to last for a long time.”
So for Jefferson, the fight for America’s honor continued. As Dugatkin sees it, even the Lewis and Clark expedition almost 20 years later was just one more battle in the war on American degeneracy.
“Jefferson wanted hard evidence of the amazing nature of this country, and so he sent Lewis and Clark out to get it. Because that was where the future was, and we knew nothing about what was out there. And Jefferson, and others, thought once we do, we can finally put this whole argument about us being degenerate to rest.”
Lee Alan Dugatkin is the author of Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose: Natural History in Early America. You can read his Slate article on the same topic here. Listen to our entire episode on extinction through American history here.
Riots and Religion at Mr. Jefferson’s University
College students today might have a reputation for wild parties and late-night carousing. But, as most college professors will tell you, in class, apart from the odd student checking Facebook or Twitter, today’s college students tend to be a fairly well-behaved bunch.
Things were a wee bit different during the early years of the University of Virginia, according to Carlos Santos, a journalist who’s written about this era in the university’s history:
“The slightest insult– a mean look– that was enough to set them off. They had hair trigger tempers, and they would bite each other, they’d fight, they’d hit each other with fists, rocks, sticks. They would use knives, they would shoot at each other. Luckily, weapons were so primitive they rarely hit each other.”
They weren’t primitive enough to prevent tragedy, though, says Santos. “The violence actually culminated in the murder in 1840 of John Davis, who was a professor of law.”
It was hardly the kind of intellectual paradise Thomas Jefferson envisioned when he founded the school in 1819. Jefferson pictured an ideal “academical village;” a place where pursuits of the mind were paramount. To be fair, collegiate violence wasn’t by any means unique to his new academic endeavor: even Harvard had to endure the antics of unruly students, including the 1807 “Rotten Cabbage Rebellion” over the quality of dining hall food. But the students’ behavior posed a real threat to the existence of Mr. Jefferson’s university.* The school, which Jefferson had created to be an academic haven outside the influence of organized religion, already had many detractors, and its reputation for violence only intensified criticism. Santos again:
“This was in an era when the law had just been pushed off the books where it was a crime to not believe in the holy trinity. And so for Jefferson to start a school that had no religious affiliation was anathema to many people, especially in Virginia. So they began to criticize the school when they saw all this violence, a murder of a professor. They wanted it shuttered.”
Jefferson at one point was brought to tears by the violence; he knew full well that it was something that could threaten the future of the university. So, Jefferson, other administrators, and the universities’ professors tried everything they could to control the problem. They instituted an “early morning rising law” to try to keep students from staying out all night, and a strict dress code to make the students at least look more orderly, or if not that, make them easily identifiable when they were causing trouble in town.
Nothing worked. Nothing, that is, until the effects of the Second Great Awakening made it to the campus. This revival of serious Christianity, which swept across America in the early 19th century, changed the atmosphere at UVA and beyond, tempering the culture of honor and violence with piety and lawfulness.
Jefferson’s university had finally gotten the kinds of students it needed to fulfill Jefferson’s dream for an academical village, but with them came the one thing Jefferson had been determined to keep out: the church.
Listen to our segment on UVA’s violent early history, or to our entire episode on higher education in America. And you can read Carlos Santos’ article on early UVA students here.
*Note: For those readers not blessed by fortune to live in Charlottesville or attend the University of Virginia, you’ll now know that as a sign of respect and affection, the founder of the school is often referred to locally as “Mr. Jefferson.”