Captain Nathaniel Gordon

Shortly after the turn of the 19th century, the importation of slaves into the U.S. was made illegal. On paper. In 1820, Congress even deemed such behavior a form of piracy, a capital crime. But this was a law that wasn’t often enforced, and those who were found breaking it expected fines and brief incarcerations and not much else.

The importation of slaves into the U.S. did decrease markedly in the first half of the 19th century, but not because of the porous American law. Other destinations – Brazil, Cuba – had demand for servile labor, and many of the still-active slave traders focused on those markets more than American ones.

Also, despite British attempts to shut down the African trade, the U.S. refused to allow the Royal Navy to stop and board American-flagged vessels on the high seas for inspection, even if the American ship might be engaged in mutually-recognized illegal activity. Embarrassingly and predictably, Old Glory soon became the preferred flag-of-protection for slave traders in international waters.

Piracy? Capital crime? No slave runner had ever gone to the gallows in the United States when caught.

Until Nathaniel Gordon.

Gordon’s ship was stopped by the U.S.S. Mohican on 8 August 1860 approx 50 miles off the Congolese coast, bound for Havana. On boarding, his ship was found to have 897 naked and starving Africans in the hold. The stench, it was said, was overpowering when the hatches were opened.

Gordon was arrested, and according to records enjoyed a rather loose incarceration at The Tombs, enjoying furloughs to visit his family while awaiting trial, at which time he knew he’d be given the customary slap-on-the-wrist.

It’s too bad for Gordon that Lincoln was elected twelve weeks later.

Those dusty piracy laws were resurrected. Gordon was convicted and sentenced to hang in November 1861.

“For more than forty years the statute under which he has been convicted has been a dead letter, because the moral sense of the community revolted at the penalty of death imposed on an act when done between Africa and Cuba which the law sanctioned between Maryland and Carolina,” argued Gordon’s counsel on appeal. To no avail.

Lincoln, despite petitions for clemency, and though usually one to consider a humanitarian commutation, was in no mood for mercy. Our Civil War – a conflict enflamed by the very issue of Gordon before the court – was raging throughout the country at that moment.

Gordon was executed on 20 February 1862. He was the only slaver in the United States to ever meet this juridical fate.

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Death Takes A Holiday (V)

to wit, a middle-aged peripatetic shrink undertakes the Great American Cross-Country Road Trip with help from little leaguers, German bikers, the King of Rock ‘n Roll, porn stars and an abandoned brothel, a flock of domesticated ducks, the Department of Homeland Security and the West Memphis police, a decommissioned atomic warhead, some dodgy motels… and a strange rider in the back of a 2013 Ford Fusion.

The Grim Reaper and I pulled into Vegas later that afternoon. Time was of the essence, as there were three stops to make before we departed the following day.

The first was a brief medical meeting that I had planned to attend to get a few credits toward licensure renewal (and to make the trip seem more ‘official’ and not such a lark). Four hours down. Check.

The second was a fast perusal of the annual Las Vegas Antique Arms Show held at the Riviera. It’s a really amazing assortment of the most stunning antique guns and accoutrements that one will encounter outside of a museum. Want a revolver owned by Bat Masterson? How about a Winchester repeater that served in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show? Or a relic from the U.S. 7th Cavalry at the Little Big Horn? Something carried by Teddy Roosevelt? Or perhaps Pancho Villa’s spurs? All are available… for a price. It’s eye-candy for the collector and historian, and I try not to miss it when I can arrange a trip west each year. Three hours down. Check.

But it was the third that was, er, the most unusual.

The event of which I speak was being held in the convention arena at the Hard Rock Casino and Hotel just off the Strip. This particular gathering was once part of the annual Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show. Based at the Sands Casino since the mid-1980s, what was once the appendage of the CES grew so large that it eventually went solo, seeking its own space.

When I entered the exhibition hall at the Hard Rock, I first came upon a news reporter in the middle of giving a live update. She was presenting the area’s three day weather forecast, and there was a map directly behind her at which she gestured periodically. The lighting guy and the cameraman were adjusting their equipment as she spoke. The reporter was young and attractive, with a flawless Colgate smile. She looked just like every other lithe and willowy female reporter on the networks or cable these days. Except she was a reporter from Naked News. And yes, she was entirely naked.

Well, naked with very minimal body paint.

Welcome to the AVN Entertainment Expo and Awards.


“Wow, thank you…. Gee, I really worked so hard this year. I think I had, like, 50 movies I was on the cover of, or appeared in. I really feel like this is awesome. I think I’m, like, only the second girl to win both [current award] and Performer of the Year. I just want to thank my fans. You guys are totally amazing, and you make me do what I do. I love [it]. You have no idea. I will [perform] forever for you, and this is just the beginning. Thank you so much!”

~actress accepting film award


‘Habituation,’ also known as ‘satiation’ or ‘desensitization,’ is found in behavioral jargon. The term describes over-exposure to certain stimuli that, with the passage of time, results in the loss of the original degree of impact. One example of this is seen with swearing. Studies have repeatedly shown that uttering expletives when hurt aids with pain tolerance (Stephens & Umland, Journal of Pain, Dec 2011; Pinker, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature, 2007). But interestingly, the initial analgesic effect is lessened the more the sufferer swears, or if the sufferer has a potty mouth and curses a lot at baseline. Familiarity breeds contempt, they say, and excessive indulgence here seems to breed lack of potency as well.

I would argue that this phenom occurs in many different ways. Think of female bathing suits; what would get you arrested in Atlantic City in 1920 would be laughably prudish today. Ditto co-ed dormitory arrangements in 21st century colleges. Or suggestive mass advertising. Or late night humor on TV. Or Bob Dole doing ads for ED. Or Clinton and the cocktail party dress. Think of The Graduate. Think of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. For better or for worse, the more our society ‘pushes the envelope,’ and then talks about it, the more those subjects and behaviors that were unspeakable in days past became de rigueur to the younger generation.

Nowhere can this be seen more starkly than at the AVN Entertainment Expo and Awards.

That acceptance speech above, modestly edited due to language? It was given by adult performer Jenna Haze in 2009 as she accepted her Woody – yes, they call it that – for ‘Porn Starlet of the Year.’

Erotica has been around for thousands of years. It is arguably older than organized civilization. Check out early cave paintings. Sexualized depictions of ancient Sumerian and Egyptian fertility figures also prove the point. And just look at many of the frescoes unearthed at Pompeii from two millennia past – go ahead, Google ‘Secret Museum Naples’ and see what comes up. And as for the commercialization of these prurient interests, they don’t call it the World’s Oldest Profession for no reason.

Still, it’s not a topic that has been deemed appropriate for polite circles. For much of its existence, erotica, at least in the Western world, has been relegated to hushed conversations, back rooms, dodgy characters, and the other side of the tracks. Nowhere is this seen more starkly than in the schizophrenic approach to sex found in the Victorian epoch. At the same time that daguerreotypists were first experimenting with their newfangled technology by creating racy boudoir images (in private), the sight of an uncovered female ankle in public could send the weakest into fainting spells. And after railing against moral turpitude, it’s well known that slummy Storeyville had its share of visits from those very same church elders, city councilmen, and Washington powerbrokers when they were in New Orleans on ‘business.’

The moralists continue to rant, but the genre, for better or worse, remains robust, with annual demand in the United States approaching $10B by some estimates. Adult Video News, the sponsor of its namesake expo and awards, is the primary trade publication for those businesses serving adult-caliber amusements in the United States. The New York Times has opined that AVN is for x-rated entertainment what Billboard is for the recording industry. And before you discount this ‘fringe economy,’ adult pursuits have actually exerted more of an influence on the real world than you might assume. Concern about sales of erotica was a major factor in the ‘formatting wars’ that were fought between VHS and Betamax, as well as more recently between Blu-Ray and HDDVD.

Think of THAT the next time you pop a Disney video into your home player!

Anyway, the AVN Expo is set up like any other trade show. Over 30,000 people attend, and more than 350 vendors are registered. There are glitzy booths and lots of business cards. There are displays of new products, many of them ‘nutritional supplements’ or those operated by battery. There are businesses that will make rubber casts of any part of your body. And too many autograph opportunities to count.

[perhaps a leather executioner’s mask is on your wish list, or your horsewhip is too old? Well, Flogger Knows Best will sell you those – and yes, that’s the real d/b/a name of a vendor from Scotland who regularly has a display, brogue and all]

There is a lot of exercise equipment available to custom order… oh wait, that’s not exercise equipment tagged with Fifty Shades of Grey references. Service providers are also in attendance – private investigators are there, as are STD testing companies. Prostitution, while illegal in Vegas proper, is not illegal in the counties, and brothels – the ultimate service providers, I suppose – are working the crowd handing out flyers with driving directions.

Maybe you’re a white collar professional who doesn’t want to sully your hands, or other parts, in front of cameras or dealing with Pacific Rim sweatshops? That’s okay, the AVN has something for you too. Lawyers are giving seminars for other lawyers on how to break into the industry as in-house counsel (I’m not joking, and somehow I missed those classes in law school). Likewise, at least one physician is touting plastic surgery for one’s nether regions (again, I missed those classes in med school).

But perhaps most surprising are the public attendees. There is a smattering of the Great Unwashed as you might expect. But those crusty denizens of the night are decidedly in the minority. There are nerdy-looking collegians. There are nicely dressed middle aged couples, the types you see at PTA meetings. There are grandmotherly visitors. And there are even ecclesiastics who set up a booth in a (futile?) attempt to save souls in this most-Sodom-and-Gomorrah of venues.

Once you’ve tired of the trade show, there is always the awards ceremony that occurs after the expo closes on the last of its four days. The evening is replete with limos, red carpet photo ops, press agents, bling, fake anatomy, and fake smiles. Tickets are available to the public, albeit not cheaply. Once inside, there are speeches and music and retrospectives, plus many tears and hugs. Tuxedo’d announcers ask for “the envelope, please.” There are nearly 100 categories of recognition, most of which are analogous to those in the non-adult film industry. They include Best Video Feature and Series, Best Film, Best Comedy, Best High Definition Product, Best Interactive DVD, Best Foreign Film, Best Amateur Release, Best Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Musical Score, and Best Packaging and Marketing.

There’s also a Best Special Effects Award. I have yet to figure out that one.

And sadly, the Best, er, Safe Activity award was inexplicably eliminated following the 2007 ceremony.

In order to be eligible for a Woody nomination, a title must have been released between October 1st through September 30th of the year prior. According to its press release, the Woody – it’s not a golden phallus as is oft-rumored – is awarded “for exceptional performance in various aspects of the creation and marketing of adult entertainment.”

1999 AVN trophy - pretty cheesy

1999 AVN trophy – pretty cheesy

After some updating the current trophy is in actuality a transparent rectangular Lucite block with a etched silhouette of a couple embracing. The base of the award is then engraved with the year, category, and winner’s name, and is perfectly sized for display on your mantel or bedside table.

The current AVN trophy - much classier

The current AVN trophy – much classier

[but what of recognition for those whose contributions to the field transcend even the Woody? Luckily, there is a Hall of Fame in Chatsworth, California]

For victorious and vanquished alike, fear not! There are après-ceremony parties for everyone, the biggest of which is sponsored by the Guccione conglomerate, and all of them last into the wee hours of the morning.

The women’s expensive gowns aren’t much more revealing than what you’d see in front of the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles. Were it not for some of the categories of AVN recognition – for toys and activities I can’t mention in a PG-13 blog – you’d be hard-pressed to determine which award ceremony you were witnessing. Given these unmistakable similarities, many do refer to the AVN event as the ‘Oscars of Porn.’

All of this is available straight from Vegas for your viewing pleasure at home on Showtime, with only some minor editing for language.

And in case you’re still not convinced and need more evidence of desensitization, many Woody nominees and winners are depicted on – get this – trading cards which are sold in groups as well as handed out individually at the event. Collect the whole set! Babe Ruth is spinning in his grave.

I wonder what my prized 2014 Capri Cavanni is fetching these days?

As a psychiatrist and keen observer of human behavior, I’m glad I saw all of this in person – I’d not have believed it otherwise. But by now it was nearing bedtime, and my late colleague had been in the back seat of the car alone for too long. I didn’t feel like staying for the Best Picture Award, knowing I could always look it up online later.

And besides, we had a long day tomorrow heading for a (nearly) abandoned ghost town in the Arizona desert.

[to be continued…]

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

PLIVA v. Mensing

I was once a big fan of generic medications, seeing them as a way by which to contain healthcare costs and loosen the deathgrip that Big Pharma exerted on the American economy and our individual wallets.

Then I worked briefly for a pharmaceutical contract research organization. And I went to law school.

I’m not so sure any longer.

With that in mind, you know it’s going to be a bad day for constitutional scholars when the high court says that its own ruling from only two years prior “makes little sense.” In this instance, SCOTUS was referring to PLIVA v. Mensing and that decision’s deleterious effect on some of those who have been harmed by prescription medications but now are left with few if any avenues for redress.

Two patients, Gladys Mensing and Julie Demahy, each saw their family physician and rec’d a prescription for Reglan, a medication used to treat nausea/ vomiting and other digestive problems. In both cases, local pharmacists substituted the generic version when filliing the prescriptions – dispensing metoclopramide and not branded Reglan. After each woman had taken the Rx as instructed for several years, both developed tardive dyskinesia (TD), an uncommon but serious and usually irreversible neurological condition more often seen in chronic psychiatric patients taking antipsychotic Rx.

The women filed state tort suits, later joined, claiming that the makers of the generic version of their Rx had failed to provide adequate label warning of this risk.

Metoclopramide was first isolated in the 1960s, when the risk of TD was not fully appreciated. Once approved in the U.S., branded Reglan became very popular, though its use was predictably later supplanted in the marketplace by newer agents. In 1982, Reglan went generic.

And there the story might have ended with Reglan eventually fading to obscurity. But it enjoyed a resurgence in use when one of the newer agents that replaced it was unexpectedly yanked from the market. So before long, millions of American were again taking Reglan (from Schwarz Pharma) and metoclopramide (from twenty-three different generic manufacturers).

Once enough Phase IV data suggested a possible problem, in 2004 a research team published a study that noted a definite TD-metoclopramide association, saying in pertinent part: “given [the Rx’s recent surge in usage], the incidence of TD may increase accordingly. Thus, TD risk factors relative to the intended benefit and duration of use should be considered in metoclopramide prescribing.”

And it was not until several years later that this warning was widely circulated in the medical community.

FDA regulations permit manufacturers of branded drugs to update their labels when new data comes to light, without having to petition first for FDA approval of the changes. However, FDA regulations do not allow makers of generic drugs to change labels on their own; those companies must use exactly the same labels that were originally approved for the branded drug when it was first marketed. Only under an FDA directive mandating such a change can the generic manufacturers update their labels.

Given the clinical findings, Reglan labels were accordingly updated by the brand name manufacturer. But the generic labels were not, as no such FDA directive was then issued.

Had Mensing and Demahy taken brand name Reglan, as their doctors prescribed, their injuries would have been potentially actionable under a failure-to-warn theory (depending on the wording of the added cautionary statement).

But the plaintiffs took generics. The generic labels had no mention of TD as a risk at all, because that informaton was not part of the original Reglan package insert. And the generic manufacturers couldn’t have updated their labels absent an FDA directive to do so.

Thus, held SCOTUS, state tort law was preempted in this instance by (very imperfect) federal generic drug regulations, and the lawsuit of Mensing and Demahy could not go forward.

Little consoluation, but the FDA has since ordered all manufacturers of Reglan/ metoclopramide to include a “black box” warning regarding TD on package inserts.

And as a postscript, I don’t know if the plaintiffs’ theory of failure-to-warn might extend to the pharmacists who substituted? I’ve not been able to ascertain if that’s an option or not.

Either way, the plaintiffs may just be SOL.

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John Paul Jones

John Paul Jones – the admiral, not the rock star – was a Scotsman by birth, and a legendary seaman and naval strategist who fought valiantly for the patriots during our Revolution. He commanded the Bonhomme Richard, and during his service inflicted significant damage on superior British naval forces along the coasts of Nova Scotia, Ireland, and England. After the war, on 18 July 1792, he died while in Paris. The American ambassador to France at the time, Gouverneur Morris, harbored an intense dislike of Jones and refused to request repatriation or government funds for a proper burial for this national hero. Luckily, a French admirer, one Pierrot Simmoneau, donated money for expenses – in particular an alcohol-filled lead coffin that would help preserve the remains and would also be easily identifiable when the U.S. government finally came to claim Jones.

Having been a Calvinist, Jones’ body was interred in the Protestant section of St Louis Cemetery. But shortly after Jones was buried, France’s revolutionary government sold the cemetery, and the bodies therein were promptly forgotten.

And as for the U.S. government? No one in Washington paid the slightest attention for more than 107 years.

In 1899, then-ambassador Horace Porter commissioned a team of researchers to find Jones’ grave in the long-forgotten cemetery. This was a deeply personal search for Porter, a renowned Civil War commander in his own right, because he “felt a deep sense of humiliation as an American that our first and most fascinating naval hero had been lying for more than a century in an unknown and forgotten grave.”

Six years after starting the search, Jones’ lead coffin was located. On 7 April 1905 the body was positively identified, still wearing a recognizable naval uniform. Those present were amazed by the good condition of the corpse, which the alcohol had mostly mummified.

mummified remains of Adm J.P. Jones (courtesy USNI)

mummified remains of Adm J.P. Jones (courtesy USNI)

Jones was transported back to the U.S Naval Academy onboard the U.S.S. Brooklyn in April 1906, with President Teddy Roosevelt delivering a tribute upon arrival. Seven years later, after much preparation, the remains were re-interred in an elaborate bronze and marble sarcophagus in the Naval Academy chapel, where they remain to this day.

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John Tyler

William Henry Harrison was the first U.S. President to die in office. He expired of pneumonia after only 32 days, and his demise raised serious questions as John Tyler, the Vice-President, prepared to step into the power vacuum in April 1841.

John Tyler

John Tyler

You see, the Constitution was then vague regarding the Vice President’s role in such an event. Article II, Section 1 stated, “in case of the removal of the President from office, or of his death, resignation, or inability to discharge the powers and duties of said office, the same shall devolve on the Vice President.”

But to what did the words “the same” refer? The office, or just the powers and duties which the Vice President would temporarily discharge until a new President was elected? Our current Twenty Fifth Amendment, which clarifies this question, did not then exist.

The Twelfth Amendment, ratified in 1804, only added to the confusion. It created a system by which electors voted for candidates who were clearly designated as potential ‘President’ and ‘Vice President.’ It stated that should the chief executive die “the Vice-President shall act as President.”

Given that, would a public servant who had not been specifically elected to the office of President then actually possess the authority to lead, or instead merely become a minor executive caretaker in the face of a strong Congress?

This was particularly pressing in the case of Tyler, as he was not held in particularly high esteem at the time of Harrison’s death. Two living former Presidents had harsh words: Andrew Jackson called Tyler “an imbecile in the executive chair,” and John Q. Adams thought of Tyler as “a political sectarian of the slave-driving Virginia school… with all of the [expected] vices… rooted in his moral and political constitution.” Adams went on to opine that Tyler was merely an acting-President, temporarily exercising the powers of the office without lawfully occupying the seat.

Many derisively referred to Tyler as “his Accidency” (Geo W. Bush, are you listening?)

Newspaper editor Francis Blair wrote that Tyler was “such a poor weeping willow of a creature.” The Secretary of State, Daniel Webster, thought that Tyler’s seemingly mild manner would be easy to manipulate. Henry Clay started making plans to govern the country from his seat in the Senate.

Tyler knew all of this, and was also aware that how he conducted himself would establish precedent that would bind future Presidents. And within hours of his arrival in the Capital, Tyler proved stronger and more wily than his opponents had expected.

With the late President’s cabinet assembled, Tyler declared to the room that he was not the Vice President acting as President, but rather the President of the United States, legally possessing both the office and its full powers, and that he intended to govern as such. The room sat silently. In an apparent attempt to regain some momentum, Secretary Webster, speaking for the cabinet, then explained to Tyler that under President Harrison (in his brief tenure), cabinet members and the President had cast votes on policy matters, with the majority controlling.

Tyler, seeing this as an attempted power-grab by Webster and his allies, announced that he could not accept such a practice. “I beg your pardon, gentlemen,” he said. “I am very glad to have in my cabinet such able statesmen as you have proved yourself to be. And I shall be pleased to avail myself of your counsel and advice. But I can never consent to being dictated to. I am the President and I shall be responsible for my administration.” Tyler went on to state that if any present disagreed with what he had just outlined, they should resign immediately, although he preferred that they remain at their posts for the present.

No one again challenged Tyler or submitted a resignation. Shortly thereafter, William Branch, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, administered the oath of office, and there remained no question that Tyler was then the 10th President of the United States.

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The Sea Of Trees

As today is Valentine’s Day, it is worth noting that there are certain locations in United States – both the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the Duke Ellington Bridge in D.C. come to mind – that have been associated for years with both attempted and completed suicides. However, nothing in North America comes close to Japan’s Aokigahara Forest.

Nicknamed ‘The Sea Of Trees,’ Aokigahara is located near the base of Mount Fuji, and is arguably the most popular place in the world at which to launch oneself prematurely into the Great Beyond, whether because of personal shame, financial ruin, or romantic failure. Japan has the second-highest rate of suicide in the developed world, almost as high as neighboring South Korea and nearly double that of the U.S. This dense forest – given its relative isolation and impenetrable foliage – appeals to many Japanese who desire privacy and non-interference with their plans.

Popularized in Seicho Matsumoto’s 1961 novel, Tower of Waves, in which a young woman kills herself there after becoming involved in a socially unacceptable relationship, the forest saw in 2004 (the most recent year for which statistics are available) 108 known suicides. I say ‘known’ because many of those who end their lives are not found for years, or even decades, after-the-fact. Hikers come across abandoned campsites, old photographs, diaries, and bones in tattered clothing all the time.

Things have gotten so bad that police and local fireman coordinate monthly sweeps to recover people in various states of consciousness and to gather human remains. In 2011 local authorities found about 100 people who were in the process of taking their lives in various ways, but many more went undetected. And if the search teams get there too late, workers must collect the decomposing bodies and carry them down to the local station, where they are stored in a special room used specifically to house these corpses.

Spiritualists have decided that so many suicides have occurred in Aokigahara that the trees are saturated with negative energy, producing exceptionally high frequencies of paranormal activity, such as audible screams at night and dead bodies moving on their own.

Now there are signs at the entrances to the forest with contact information for the Suicide Prevention Association that read: “Your life is a precious gift from your parents. Please think about your parents, siblings and children. Don’t keep it to yourself. Talk about your troubles.”

No word yet if this outreach program has had any appreciable effect on completed acts or not.

Have a Happy Valentine’s Day.

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Death Takes A Holiday (IV)

to wit, a middle-aged peripatetic shrink undertakes the Great American Cross-Country Road Trip with help from little leaguers, German bikers, the King of Rock ‘n Roll, porn stars and an abandoned brothel, a flock of domesticated ducks, the Department of Homeland Security and the West Memphis police, a decommissioned atomic warhead, some dodgy motels… and a strange rider in the back of a 2013 Ford Fusion.

There’s an interesting phenom I’ve noticed in the past when driving to Vegas. Depending from which direction you’re approaching, the Nevada border runs through some pretty desolate areas. Usually, there are no landmarks to tell where you are located. The road seems long and endless. You have to depend on the car’s odometer and count the miles yourself. But before you reach the Silver State, you’ll notice what appears to be a dark line just below the visual horizon, way in the distance. At first, what forms this dark line is not apparent. But as you get closer – you’re still miles away – you realize that the ‘line’ is created by buildings. Clustered buildings. All casinos. And all within feet of the border.

Casino owners crowd there because they want to be ‘first’ when desperate traveling gamblers cross into the Land of Legal Gaming. It’s funny to see all of those establishments right on the line – as if they’re aren’t more than enough video poker outlets elsewhere in Nevada to fill the need.

Anyway, as my articulated companion and I were approaching the California-Nevada border at Primm, I noticed ‘the line,’ and before long the individual casinos came into focus – half a dozen large buildings. And the most prominent of them is Whiskey Pete’s.

Whiskey Pete's

Whiskey Pete’s

Whiskey Pete’s is both a casino and an adjoining hotel. It’s pretty big for being in such a God-forsaken place – almost 800 rooms and suites, a large swimming pool, several gift shops and restaurants, and a casino of more than 36,000 sq ft. It also has a monorail that connects to its neighboring casinos across I-15.

Whiskey Pete’s namesake was a real man – Peter MacIntyre, a gas station owner in State Line, NV, back in the 1920s. Selling petrol for pennies didn’t make much of a living, so Pete decided to supplement his income with bootlegging. And apparently he did quite well at it. His gas station was known, surprisingly, as Whiskey Pete’s. When he died in 1933, Pete asked to be buried on his property with a bottle of hooch in his hand so that he could stay close and watch over the illicit activities from the Great Beyond (note: when building the casino that bears his name in 1977, the construction crews accidentally disturbed his unmarked grave and he was subsequently reburied down the road at a site where once had been located his copper stills).

Anyway, a developer who decided to build in State Line, Ernest Primm, modestly named his new wide-spot-in-the-road after himself; before long, Primm, NV, sported several gaming complexes: Whiskey Pete’s, Buffalo Bill’s, and the Primm Valley Resort. And normally, unless you’re totally addicted to gambling, most of us zoom right past Primm on the interstate in our rush to get to the Vegas Strip.

But you’d be missing the rather unusual if you did. And I don’t mean Whiskey Pete’s final resting place.

I exited the highway with the Grim Reaper, covering him with a jacket in the back seat after I parked. I wasn’t going to be long, but there are two interesting cars to see inside the casino, even though they are little-advertised in either print or highway billboard format.

In December 1941, the U.S. Secret Service found itself in a quandary. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor the day before, and the President was to address Congress. Normally, FDR would have ridden from the White House to Capitol Hill in his limo. But everyone was very tense about possible Japanese agents-provocateur being nearby and possibly making an attack on the person of the president. An armored car was needed for the short trip, but the presidential limo was not hardened. Then, one Secret Service agent remembered seeing an armored car at the U.S. Treasury Department’s impound lot. It was a 1928 Cadillac 341A Town Sedan that had been custom built for high-ranking gangsters; both Dutch Schultz and Al Capone had made use of it, in no small part because of its lead-filled doors and inch-thick glass.

[despite its construction, the car was never involved in any actual gunfights; Schultz died in 1935 after being shot in the men’s room of the Palace Chophouse in Newark, NJ, and Capone died of the ravages of neuro-syphilis in 1947 at his mansion in Palm Island, FL]

The car had been seized from Capone by the government when he was convicted of tax evasion in 1931. That is how it came to be used by FDR to drive to Congress to request a declaration of war ten years later. And now it resides at Whiskey Pete’s.

The second car on display is not in as good condition, but it’s had a harder life. You see, in April 1934, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker – yes, that Bonnie and Clyde – stole a brand-new Ford Model 730 Deluxe Sedan with a powerful V-8 engine, and used it for the next six weeks as their getaway car during a number of robberies and killings. The joyride ended in late May in Bienville Parish, Louisiana, when they were ambushed by a lawmen’s posse and the car was riddled with over 100 bullets.

The Death Car then

The Death Car then

Since then, the Death Car has traveled to carnivals, amusement parks, flea markets, race tracks, and state fairs all over the country; at one point, hucksters charged the luridly-obsessed $1 to sit in the front seat. But fearing that overuse might destroy the automotive cash cow, the car was taken off the touring circuit and then spent time in a museum in Reno and several casinos before winding up in its now-permanent (?) home at Whiskey Pete’s in July 2011.

The Death Car now

The Death Car now

[in case you missed my earlier post on Bonnie and Clyde, here it is again:]

And don’t be fooled by imposters! The prop car from the 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde is often passed as the Death Car, but Whiskey Pete’s has the real deal. And while you’re there, don’t miss, next to the Death Car, Clyde’s bullet-tattered Shirt of Death also on display. In the same case with the shirt is a formal-looking notarized document from none other than Marie Barrow, Clyde’s sister, attesting to its authenticity.

Clyde's Shirt of Death (courtesy Roadside America)

Clyde’s Shirt of Death (Courtesy Roadside America)

If you are wondering, Clyde wore a 14-32 – he was kinda scrawny.

Both of these cars are sitting in the middle of the casino floor, albeit behind glass, near the cashier’s cage. All around there are flashing lights, ringing bells and whistles, and the other expected sensory stimuli of a Nevada gambling house. They are on display 24/ 7/ 365 for free. And yet, both vehicles were being ignored by the addicts mindlessly feeding quarters into the surrounding machines. I seemed to be the only one paying them attention.

Now, if only Whiskey Pete’s could just track down Dutch Schultz’ ‘Urinal of Death,’ THAT would be impressive!

[to be continued…]

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Nellie In Her Nightie

The next time you’re in the Hamptons – you DO summer in the Hamptons, don’t you? – pay close attention to the hood ornament (or as the Brits call it, the bonnet mascot) on your neighbor’s Rolls Royce. There you’ll see an Art Deco figure of a woman leaning forward with her arms outstretched, billowing cloth around her, as if taking flight.

The Spirit of Ecstasy

The Spirit of Ecstasy

It’s called The Spirit of Ecstasy. It was inspired by the sculpture of Nike currently in the Louvre. And it’s not just a random decoration.

You see, it was designed by English sculptor Charles Sykes at the behest of Lord John Montagu of Beaulieu, an early pioneer in the automotive industry and editor of The Car Illustrated at the turn of the century. He was having an affair with one Eleanor Thornton, his secretary. They had to be stealthy regarding their romance, though, because Miss Thornton was impoverished and from the wrong side of the social tracks for a peer. Lord Montagu grudgingly married Lady Victoria Constance for political reasons, but never stopped loving Eleanor.

Lord Montagu

Lord Montagu

Eleanor Thornton

Eleanor Thornton

The earliest Rolls Royces had no hood ornaments at all, just the ‘RR’ cypher on the radiator. But ornaments were the rage pre-WWI, and some owners were affixing ‘inappropriate’ decorations to their hoods, something that concerned the brand-conscious company. Montagu was no different, and asked his friend Sykes to sculpt his lover so that he could affix her likeness to the hood of his Rolls. Originally the figure, which Sykes called The Whisper, had her finger to her lips to represent the illicit love affair – the original artist’s model of this still exists at the National Motor Museum in the UK – but later, perhaps out of an excess of discretion, Montagu asked that the Whisper be changed to The Spirit of Ecstasy, sans whisper, known today.

Most of Montagu’s friends and associates loved the design, and given Montagu’s prominence in the early automotive world in Great Britain, he was urged to use his influence with the company to have it adopt his ornament for all of its motor cars. The company agreed – better this female form than something ‘inappropriate’ – and The Spirit of Ecstasy became ‘the’ symbol of Rolls Royce in February 1911. And though listed as an option, silver plated at first and then made from nickel or chrome later, it was present on just about every car that left the factory after 1920. In the Gilded Age with its conspicuous consumption, some of the ornaments were even sterling, 24k gold-plated, or made of Bacarrat crystal.

Today, The Spirit of Ecstasy is cast at the factory in stainless steel (options still exist for other pricier materials) and stands 3″ tall. It is mounted on a spring-loaded mechanism that will retract instantly into the radiator shell if struck from any direction – an attempt to keep from impaling any litigious pedestrians. And despite its longevity – there have been eleven different styles and sizes of the standard ornament over the past 103 years – not everyone has liked it. Some referred derisively to the mascot as “Nellie in her Nightie.” Royce, part-namesake of the company, didn’t think the emblem added much to the car, rarely driving any company vehicle that sported one. Queen Elizabeth II has a Rolls that displays St George and the Dragon on the bonnet, and not The Spirit of Ecstasy in any of its version, and others in the royal family have followed suit.

And of Eleanor and Lord Montagu? Sadly, she accompanied him to his posting to India during WWI and perished on 30 December 1915 when their ship, the SS Persia, was torpedoed by a German sub off the coast of Crete. He survived.

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Intergalactic Allergic Rhinitis

[Today’s post is sponsored by the Law Offices of N.V. Gardner, Esq., of Durham, North Carolina]

When mankind finally travels to the stars and sets up residence, it appears that some decidedly earthly tribulations will follow.

Hayfever, to be exact.

Lt Col Jack Schmitt, one of the Apollo XVII astronauts, developed hayfever when on the moon in 1972. Returning to the landing module after his first day of driving around in the lunar rover, he removed his helmet and almost immediately experienced a sinus reaction to the dust that coated his suit. He became clogged, started sneezing, and his nose was running, just as happens with pollen in the springtime here on Big Blue.

Apollo XVII rover

Apollo XVII rover

His symptoms lasted for a few hours and then abated – no word if he took Benadryl or not. But each time over the subsequent three days that he repeated his lunar exposure and then removed his helmet, the same symptoms returned, though following episodes were a bit less severe, perhaps as his body acclimated to whatever allergen was present. And although Schmitt was the only one on that Apollo flight who complained of such, he later maintained that the others had the same reaction, but were averse to admit it for fear that they might somehow be grounded.

And in case you’re wondering what is the odor of the moon, Schmitt and other astronauts have said that it smells like spent gunpowder (not ragweed).

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Death Takes A Holiday (III)

to wit, a middle-aged peripatetic shrink undertakes the Great American Cross-Country Road Trip with help from little leaguers, German bikers, the King of Rock ‘n Roll, porn stars and an abandoned brothel, a flock of domesticated ducks, the Department of Homeland Security and the West Memphis police, a decommissioned atomic warhead, some dodgy motels… and a strange rider in the back of a 2013 Ford Fusion.

Boney-M and I departed San Juan Capistrano under the still-risen full moon. The sun’s arrival was only hinted on the horizon, but traffic was already heavy with worker bees heading for their cubes downtown. Luckily, our early start avoided interminable delays, and we cleared the potential freeway bottlenecks and veered east toward Vegas.

As the sun fully rose, the rolling brown California hills came more clearly into view. Suburban sprawl eventually gave way to habitation and retail blight that was increasingly sparse. Scrub vegetation, dry washes, gullies – I had come this way before, back in 1988, when I first visited Vegas from Los Angeles; while the extent of civilization has spread outward, the relative isolation past the city limits seems not to have changed very much.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Route 66 was one of the original roads within the U.S. Highway System, a project initially begun in the 1920s to form (relatively) unbroken connections that would span the nation. In the case of 66, it was officially dedicated in 1926 – before its roadsigns were even in place – and stretched 2448 miles from the East (actually, Chicago) through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, on its way to the Pacific. It became an icon of pop culture long after its initial usefulness had been superceded by larger and faster roads, and it spawned both a hit song and a television series. While Route 66 as a national highway has long since been decommissioned – officially in 1985, to be exact – large sections of the original blacktop remain in varying states of decay. Some parts of old 66 have weeds growing up through the asphalt, a desolate and poignant subject for intrepid photographers. Other parts of old 66 have been incorporated as less-traversed but still functioning state highways. Ironically, the new super-interstates that killed 66 often parallel the old road, and many times within line of sight. This is especially the case in southern California, where the ghost of 66 extends from Santa Monica to the border with Arizona at Needles.

One town, well into the Mojave Desert, at which the modern I-40 and old 66 intersect is Barstow. There, the apparition is still very much alive.

For one thing, the furthest western segment of Main St in Barstow actually is Route 66; this part of the road wasn’t abandoned like so many other stretches, here because it went straight through downtown as the old commercial section. Most of the vintage storefronts still have ‘66’ painted on their brick walls, or display neon signs with the logo in their windows. Very 1950s-ish.

But drive a little further into Barstow, and leave Main St for a short detour as we did, and there’s something of even greater interest.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Fred Harvey was an Englishman who emigrated to New York City as a teenager before the Civil War, and who started to develop in the 1870s what would come to be known as Harvey House lunchrooms, restaurants, souvenir shops, and hotels. He created these businesses along rail lines serving the American Southwest; his was basically the first dining and lodging chain in the United States. Though air travel and the automobile eventually spelled doom for his company, it was through his promotions of tourism in the late 19th century, the quality of his food, and the known civility and comfort of his establishments, that the “Wild West” was tamed and opened to those who weren’t cowboys or prospectors.

Harvey also knew that all of those hungry and tired travelers would want to see ‘real’ Indians while they were out West. A born entrepreneur, he wasn’t about to disappoint them. Although Harvey is credited with encouraging an appreciation of native American culture amongst previously clueless Easterners, he wasn’t above having some faux-Indians (or real Indians who were staged and scripted) interact with the public, much to their delight. And the showman in him knew the best way to get the (male) public’s attention – attractive young women in form-fitting dresses as tour guides. This tactic also worked for the waitresses in Harvey’s restaurants (and even spawned a 1946 movie called The Harvey Girls starring Judy Garland). But before you think otherwise, Harvey girls were chaste and innocent, at least in Harvey’s vision. They had to be unmarried, and weren’t allowed to date. They lived in shared quarters with a Harvey dorm mother as supervisor and chaperone. While the money was good, not many young women wanted to lead this cloistered existence forever, so there was a fair degree of turnover; there was always a ready supply of other pretties to take their place.

When Harvey died in 1901, his hospitality empire was thriving. Some news accounts, used for later publicity, reported his last words to his sons as “don’t cut the ham too thin, boys.” However, there is a slightly different tale from those who actually knew him. Apparently, his sandwiches of ham or cheese with an extra slice of bread for fifteen cents were known everywhere for their value. but Harvey had to make his profit to stay in business. On his deathbed, several of those who were present quoted him murmuring instead “cut the ham thinner, boys.” But being remembered as a cheapskate is not good for image.

Wholesale decline accelerated in the 1960s. Of the original eighty-four Harvey establishments, very few are remaining, and most of the iconic ones have long passed from the scene:

Alvarado, Santa Fe NM – demolished in 1969.
El Ortiz, Lamy NM – abandoned since 1938.
El Otero, La Junta CO – abandoned since 1948.
Castaneda, Las Vegas NM – abandoned since 1948.
El Navajo, Gallup, NM – abandoned since 1957.
Escalante, Ash Fork AZ – demolished in 1970.
Havasu House, Seligman AZ – demolished in 2008.
Las Chavez, Vaughn NM – abandoned since 1936.
El Vaquero, Dodge City KS – abandoned in 1948.

But a few of the vintage places are still around. In Arizona, the Hotel El Tovar still functions at the south rim of the Grand Canyon, and the Fray Marcos in Williams operates as a boutique inn, as does La Posada in Winslow. In neighboring New Mexico, the doors of La Fonda are still open in Santa Fe after all these decades.

And then there’s the Harvey House in Barstow. It was originally known as Casa del Desierto, and was built by Harvey in conjunction with the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad after a much smaller cafe and boarding house on the site had burned in 1908.

early Harvey postcard of Casa del Desierto

early Harvey postcard of Casa del Desierto

Casa del Desierto has not functioned as a hotel and restaurant since 1959. ATSF closed their station in the building in 1973, and now the casa operates as the (unstaffed) Barstow Amtrak station. It also houses municipal offices, the Western America Railroad Museum, and the Route 66 ‘Mother Road’ Museum. But at least it has not been demolished.

The bone-meister and I turned off Main St and headed along a winding two lane road that leads down to the railroad tracks. There isn’t much around. Before long, we reached the impressive Moorish-flavored edifice that once welcomed weary travelers. At first I drove around and didn’t see any signs of life, even though this was early-morning on a weekday. The building looked to be in excellent shape, making it all the easier to imagine how it must have appeared as a smoke-belching steam locomotive or early diesel engine pulled up alongside the platform and disgorged its ravenous humans more than a century ago.

Casa del Desierto today

Casa del Desierto today

My historical daydream was broken by a group of motorcyclists who appeared on the far end of the parking lot. As they neared me, I determined that they were all riding Harleys. And were all wearing red bandanas in lieu of helmets. And were all speaking German.

I’ve noticed from past trips out West that Europeans love Route 66.

I guess I looked friendly as I stood outside of my car. One of the pack approached me.

“Guten Morgen! Vee are go on 66, ja? To zee Kalifornia. Fun. Vee come to do zis. How much far to go LA?”

I tried to explain how I had just driven from Los Angeles. Much smiling, but not sure about much comprehension.

“Klaus” – the middle-aged leather-clad-and-ponytailed speaker gestured at someone behind us in the group – “here long ago years. He love und tell us to ride back vis heem. Vee buy zee Harley, ja? Great bike. Many noise.”

The German then added, “no helmet here, ja? Das ist good. Danger good. Vee like feel zee vind when ride fast” and then, he paused and added, “vee meet zee interestink people on trip. Good. Fun people. Amerikans!”

“Danger… interestink… good fun people,” I thought. Right. I was so tempted to show the pack my rider in the back seat and see their reaction. But America already has a reputation oveseas, and I suspected my attempt at lightheartedness might not make the translation. Heck, I wasn’t quite sure how I’d explain my back seat memento to even native English speakers! I decided against that option.

After exchanging some simple pleasantries, the pack folded their maps, remounted, and roared off in the direction of LA.

“Let’s go, Boney. We’ve still got stops to make, and we need to be in Vegas by lunchtime.”

And there were still 1725 miles to go before Mecca.

[to be continued…]

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]