The Chicago Christmas Tree Ship Disaster

There’s nothing like a shipwreck to spoil the holidays, and nothing like the unbridled enthusiasm of a young child to restore one’s faith in the world in general.

For many years, one of the great holiday traditions of Chicago was the arrival of the famous “Christmas Tree Ship.” Starting in 1887, Herman and August Schuenemann began docking their ship, the Rouse Simmons, at a designated mooring on the Chicago River near the Clark Street Bridge. There, they annually sold over 25,000 trees that had been cut far to the north and loaded on the vessel for the trip to the city.

Many of the largest trees ended up in public halls and theatres, and even government buildings. Marshall Fields always had several. The rest were sold to the eager citizenry. Generations of Chicagoans obtained their trees in this way. By 1912, after more than twenty five years in business, most trees on the Schuenemann’s ship were selling for seventy-five cents to one dollar each… and there was no shortage of customers. And each year after Christmas, Herman affixed a sign to the dock, reminding customers that the ship had returned to the frozen Upper Peninsula and would be back next year with another load of trees.

Herman (c) and two of the crew

Herman (c) and two of the crew

The happy crowds and holiday cheer was brought to the Second City not without risk. November – the month in which the trees had to be loaded and sailed across the Great Lakes – is a particularly treacherous time on Lake Michigan. High winds and snow squalls had sent many ships to the frigid bottom. Even August Schuenemann, who had helped Herman start the Christmas tree business, was lost in the waters off Glencoe in 1898. But the surviving Schuenemann brother had faith in the skills of his seasoned crew, and his ship, built in 1868 and specially fitted to the lumber industry, was a sturdy vessel.

On 22 November 1912, Herman Schuenemann and his men loaded sixteen passengers and between 30,000 and 50,000 trees onboard. They then set sail from Manistique MI, bound for Chicago. The sky was threatening and winds were high. Before long, the Rouse Simmons was caught in a full winter storm, far from shore. The sails ripped and ice-covered masts collapsed. The ship went to the bottom with its entire crew. Only a handful of cut trees washed ashore in the days following the ship’s loss.

The city was stunned, and the families of the drowned were grief stricken. Newspapers and the Lake Seaman’s Union organized an emergency relief fund for those facing destitution. Prayer vigils were held, and memorial plaques were installed in chapels and union halls. Searchers scoured the shoreline up and down the lake looking for clues or wreckage. A bottled message was found on a beach several weeks later; it read, “Friday. Everybody goodbye. I guess we are all through. Sea washed over our deck load. During the night, the small boat washed over. Ingvald (a deck hand) and Steve (first mate) fell overboard on Thursday. God help us. Herman Schuenemann.” The captain’s wallet was found in 1924, and a second bottled message was found in 1927, reading, “these lines were written at 10:30 p.m. Schooner R.S. ready to go down about 20 miles southeast of Two Rivers Point, 15 miles off shore. All hands lashed to one line. Goodbye. Nelson.”

But the final location of the Rouse Simmons remained a mystery until October 1971. A diver found the remarkably preserved wreck under 180 feet of water off the coast of Two Rivers.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, though, Capt Schuenemann’s young daughter, Elsie, vowed in a newspaper interview to continue her father’s tradition of bringing trees to the city. She was quoted as saying, “I am going to try to keep doing my Papa’s Christmas tree business. I will get friends to help me and send trees to Chicago and sell them at the foot of Clark Street. Before I was born, Papa has sold them there, and lots and lots of people never think of going anywhere else for their trees.” Touched by her dedication, the W.C. Holmes shipping company offered the late skipper’s family the use of an extra ship in their flotilla, the Oneida, which was moored right next to the then-empty lot at the Clark Street Bridge where the Rouse Simmons docked for so many years.

After much thought and many misgivings, and at Elsie’s insistence, in Herman’s honor the family accepted the Oneida and continued to bring trees to Chicago, albeit in much smaller numbers. But the tradition remained unbroken, and the season’s happiness gained a foothold again where tears had so recently flowed. The year of the shipwreck was the only one in almost fifty in which no trees made it to Clark Street.

It took the Great Depression and WWII to end the Schuenemann’s business for good. Few if any are now alive who remember the tree lot at the foot of Clark Street, where stands today the Riverwalk Café and Margarita Bar.

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The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year… Not (III)

While the Austrians employ Krampus at the holidays to scare children and guarantee their future in psychotherapy, the Dutch tweak the concept to give it less scary but arguably more racist appeal.

Pere Fouettard (France) and Black Peter (UK) are names for the character whom the Dutch know as Zwarte Piet. Like Krampus, he is also a companion of St Nicholas, but unlike the beast, Piet is often referenced tongue-in-cheek as a “colonial hangover.” His was a relatively late start in life – the first mention of him was only as recently as the early 19th century – but he has compensated by being less politically correct than Krampus.

Actors portraying him put on blackface and wear colorful Renaissance-style clothing, makeup with bright red lipstick, earrings, and outlandish frizzy wigs.

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet

While he is said to be the keeper of the list of those naughty and nice – apparently he eavesdrops near chimneys to determine this information – he doesn’t punish children himself. He must outsource, because Piet more often tosses candy at the kiddies and acts the fool as a sort of Yuletide court jester while the Jolly Old Elf himself is otherwise occupied.

And that eavesdropping behavior leads us to one story of his purported roots. Depending on which source you believe, Piet is black either because 1. he’s actually a soot-caked chimneysweep who overhears so much useful dirt – pun intended – hanging above fireplaces that Kris Kringle put him on the payroll, or else 2. he’s a Moorish slave whom the historical St Nicholas is said to have miraculously freed from bondage at the court of the “Emperor of Babylon,” and who, in gratitude, enlisted to become his liberator’s lifelong (presumably free) sidekick.

The chimneysweep story is charming, but unlikely, since mid 19th century sources clearly describe Piet as “negro,” and at that time in the Netherlands, chimneysweeps were not of African descent, but rather were mostly itinerant Spaniards or Italians.

Needless to say, whatever the original intent, Zwarte Piet has become controversial. While surveys have repeatedly shown that 92% of the Dutch public do not view Piet in a derogatory light – both boys and girls actively vie for the role in local events – there have been increasing editorial calls for his removal from annual Sinterklaas parades. The Dutch version of Sesame Street has struggled with the topic. Fights with arrests have been recorded at supposedly happy holiday events when pro-Piet and anti-Piet factions are unleashed. And there has even been one documented death threat stemming from the controversy (a far right wingnut threatened an activist who wanted Piet gone).

In the alternative, some have said that the character just needs to change his appearance by eliminating the frizzy wig and black face. For a few years, some Piets appeared with rainbow paint over their faces to symbolize all-inclusiveness.

Until some expressed offense that this new all-inclusive Piet might, in fact, have a surreptitious LGBT agenda.

You really can’t please all of the people all of the time.

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The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year… Not (II)

In modern America, Santa Claus is a lone wolf. That is, he does his good deeds solo on Xmas Eve, unless you count the elves back at the North Pole or the reindeer team that flies him all over on the night in question.

But in other parts of the world – in this case, Alpine Europe – Santa has a helper.

No, not that cute little sorority girl on holiday break, wearing the short faux-ermine trimmed red skirt, who poses the kiddies for the obligatory photo with the Fat Man.

I’m talking about Krampus.

Krampus is a devil-like character who seems to have sprung initially, ready for malevolence, from small towns in medieval Austria. He segued into Father Christmas’ helper, but lacks the kindly aesthetics of his boss – he’s black and hairy, has horns, cloven hooves, a tail, and a long red forked tongue; he is often portrayed sporting chains or a handful of switches and a Jack Nicholson-esque affect.

I say ‘devil-like’ because Krampus isn’t Beelzebub himself, but instead is said to have been a pagan deity who was demoted and rendered eternally subservient to the man driving the sleigh. His Monstrosity goes by many different names across the Continent – Knecht Ruprecht, Certa, Perchten, Schmutzli, Pelznickel, Klaubauf – but Krampus, his Germanic nom de guerre, is likely his best known.

he gets to drive!

he gets to drive!

His job description? On the night of December 5th, punish unruly children and free his boss to attend to the more widely anticipated and pleasurable distribution of gifts. Some of the ne’er do wells get spankings, some are slapped in irons and held captive in a large basket or washtub strapped to Krampus’ back. Those kidnapped are said to be carted off to the woods where they are drowned, eaten, tortured or deposited in the beast’s lair for later abuse. Of course, at his discretion, Krampus might just dump all those losers straight down the gaping Hellmouth to Hades. No one really knows for certain.

take that!

take that!

But do you want to chance it?

Women, being hardly more esteemed than mere children, are not safe either, except, interestingly, Krampus seems to entertain more prurient designs on adult females. Late 19th century pictures of the demon often show him ogling attractively busty and well-coiffed ladies – perhaps as punishment for a fashion faux-pas or a burnt dinner?

the evil lothario

the evil lothario

don't be fooled by this slick act

don’t be fooled by this slick act

Being a busy guy, Krampus really doesn’t have the energy to devour all of the children so richly deserving same. Thus he is also seen in period woodcut prints handing out switches to large families… sort of a DIY effort to save time.

Never passing up an opportunity to drink and carouse, though, modern Euro-adults co-opted the whole Krampus schtick and turned it into Krampusnacht, alcohol-fueled revelry which takes place on the eve of St Nicholas’ Day far and wide. Though not much prevalent in North America – yet – Krampusnacht involves masquerade balls, tomfoolery, pranks, banging on pots and pans, and the bearing of torches all over town. And just as the day after Thanksgiving is the busiest for plumbers, Krampusnacht keeps the constabulary busy into the wee hours.

That noted, a further word of caution: if you encounter Krampus, play it safe and give him his traditional due, an offering of schnapps. This will usually make him go away and torment elsewhere.

Is it any wonder that Freud’s original analysis patients were mostly Austrian?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

A Krampus update:

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The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year… Not (I)

A famous author once described the winter holidays as “a cornucopia for the senses.” That’s an apt description indeed. There is the gentle swoosh of sled rails over powdery snow, the lilting beauty of traditional carols, and the magical rhythm of sleigh bells in motion. There are tiny white and colored lights that seem to dance in the inky black outdoors. There is the warm succulence of freshly-made mincemeat. Even the stickiness on one’s hands and fingers after carrying a newly-cut pine tree can evoke all manner of delightful yuletide memories.

And there’s the smell of peppermint and wintergreen in the air.

Actually, I take issue with the last two. Those traditional scents of Christmas were largely ruined for me in the autumn of 1986.

I rotated through the internal medicine and surgery services for a number of months as a medical student, and again as an intern before proceeding to full-time psychiatry training for the remainder of my residency. On both internal medicine and surgery, it was not uncommon to find patients with long neglected open lesions from poorly controlled diabetes mellitus. The soft tissues surrounding these festering wounds had compromised circulation, and were infected, dead, or dying. The gangrenous appendage almost always was amputated, since saving it by that point was usually all-but-impossible.

Up close, the stench could stagger the strongest constitutions, and it wafted down the halls, permeating entire wards. Getting two or more of these patients admitted at the same time rendered that wing of the hospital extremely unpleasant for staff and patients alike.

So someone came up with an idea. They located bottles of an industrial-strength chemical concentrate, a few drops of which would infuse the immediate surroundings with what was thought to be an inoffensive scent. The bandages around the decaying sores were dabbled in this nuclear-powered elixir, and before long the room, and the ward, smelled like something other than rotting flesh.

The essences chosen? Peppermint and wintergreen.

Much like the man who doesn’t bathe but (thinks that he) masks his poor hygiene with a liberal dousing of Old Spice, the pungent chemical odors of peppermint and wintergreen, not necessarily unpleasant in their own rights, quickly came to be subliminally associated by all of the clinical staff with putrid gangrene. And just as the woman who douses with Chanel no.5 to excess, an otherwise pleasant fragrance can become overpowering when used too much and too often.

Years later, candy canes for me have never been the same. Tree-shaped car fresheners are usually nauseogenic. To this day, I still experience a nasty autonomic sensation inside a Yankee Candle, whatever the time of year. And don’t even mention Cracker Barrel’s Old Fashioned Country Store.

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U.S. v. Paramount Pictures, et al.

In the early days of Hollywood, a handful of studios and distributors controlled nearly all movie theatres in the United States. They employed a system called “block booking,” whereby theatres owned by the major producers showed only their own company’s films; if an independent showhouse wanted rights to movies from a particular studio, they had to reserve in advance – and exclusively – thereby foregoing the products of rival conglomerates. In controlling distribution through such strong-arm tactics, these leviathans dictated not only where and when their movies would be shown, but set non-negotiable admission prices as well.

Clearly anti-competitive – the Federal Trade Commission opined that 98% of domestic films were thus monopolized – the U.S. Justice Dept brought suit in 1929 against Paramount, First National Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Universal, United Artists, 20th Century Fox, Pathé Exchange, FBO Pictures, and the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. Declared monopolistic in the lower courts, the Supreme Court affirmed the decision in November 1930.

That was right at the start of the Great Depression. And then there was the war. Studios ignored the decision. The government didn’t enforce it. But once the economy began to improve and hostilities ended in Europe and the Pacific, the Justice Dept filed a second suit. Many prominent individuals not originally party to the first suit (e.g., Charlie Chaplin, Samuel Goldwyn, Orson Welles, Walt Disney) were deposed this time around. Settlement negotiations faltered. And in May 1948, in U.S. v. Paramount Pictures, et al., the U.S. Supreme Court again agreed with the lower courts on most counts, including affirming the prohibition against price-fixing and block booking.

This high court decision still controls movie distribution and exhibition in the U.S. to this day, and it permits all theatres to negotiate with all studios for all movies.

But the playing field is hardly level – the major studios are still 800lb gorillas, the Supreme Court be damned.

So most modern contractual agreements runs like this: during a movie’s initial release, the bulk of gross ticket sales go to the studio, often as much as 95% of the revenue from a film in its first week, 85% in the second week, and so on.

By the end of a movie’s run, when the fewest people are going to see it, the theaters are taking the lion’s share of the gross. But when averaging earnings over a film’s entire run, a theater might only realize 20% of overall ticket sales.

This system provides a strong incentive for studios to make movies with much buzz and built-in demand from popular stars; they want films that can open with a bang during that period when they, the studios, are raking in most of the revenue. The theatres then get the left-overs as the film heads for DVD and large-screen oblivion.

Over time, it’s not even uncommon that theatres will take a loss on a given movie based on ticket sales alone. There’s really little that theaters can do about this; they still have limited leverage in negotiations, regardless of what the Supreme Court says. The theatres can’t make movies themselves, and certainly they can’t turn away major blockbusters from their screens, lest people stop going to their theater altogether.

This means that theaters must find other ways to make money outside of ticket sales.

The solution was, and remains, to charge ridiculous prices for concessions. This is from where much of a theatre’s profits come.

Or, as Jack Oberleitner, a long-time veteran of the business side of Tinseltown, once observed, theaters have “left the movie business and [are] in the popcorn business.”

Now, is there an explanation for the outrageous prices charged in airports for food and drink?

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A Field Trip To The Death Chamber

I was promoted to Director of Mental Health Services for the state’s prison system in September 2006. During my tenure, I served as ringmaster for more than a hundred clinicians who tended to the psyches of 38,000 felonious incarcerated souls… including those on Death Row.

North Carolina carried out its last execution at Central Prison not long after I assumed my role. Although the death penalty remains on the books, for the past seven years there has been much friction between the legislature and the state medical board as to whether executions would be allowed to resume (you see, the medical board now prohibits any licensed physician from being in attendance at an execution, and without a doc, the condemned can’t be declared dead and the show can’t go on).

Although I could see the sun brightly glistening off the dew-bespeckled concertina wire each morning from my corner office overlooking the complex, and despite the number of hours I’ve spent on the cellblocks, I had never seen the actual execution suite. I wasn’t even certain where, in the labyrinthine maze that is the prison, that room is located.

Recently, I asked the Warden if he’d show me the death chamber when he had a moment. “How ’bout in ten minutes?” he replied.

Prior to the early 1980s, executions were conducted in the ‘old section’ of the prison – the nucleus of which dates to the 1860s. Just over 30 years ago, the current execution suite was constructed in the newer part of the front building, which I then learned happens to be directly over the Warden’s head as he sits at his desk in his office!

He and I walked to the elevator past his secretary’s desk a few steps away. I had seen this elevator in the corridor next to the administrative wing for years, but never knew to where it lead. We went up one floor and exited onto a short hallway, a doorway being directly across from the elevator. There was no one around, and it was entirely quiet. The floor and walls were clean, brightly lit, and with a hint of institutional antisepsis. I sensed a yellowish tint to everything from the paint. To our left at the end of the short hallway was a room containing a black telephone. It is on this phone that last minute calls from the courts are received, if they are coming at all. Those calls can order a stay of execution at the 11th hour, sometimes when the condemned is already strapped to a gurney.

To our right, the short hallway curved leftward and out of sight.

Initially we proceeded through the doorway directly across from the elevator, which I found leads into the execution witnesses’ room.

the witnesses' room, pre-yellow paint (courtesy AP)

the witnesses’ room, pre-yellow paint (courtesy AP)

It’s an oddly-shaped and cramped little quarter. Three rows of plastic chairs remain lined up facing a window overlooking the site of the gurney, even though no execution has taken place in years. That same yellowish tint was present, and the ventilation seemed poor and the room stuffy. I can imagine when filled with a dozen witnesses, it gets hot and muggy in there quickly. And in these cramped quarters, journalists, official observers, and those from both the victim’s and convict’s families sit almost knee to knee.

That must make for some interesting small talk before the main event.

Back outside the witnesses’ room, we turned and went down the hall, around the corner, and entered what is a technician’s room. This vestibule – once again, cramped and oddly shaped – also has a window, much smaller, overlooking the site of the gurney from a different angle. During an execution, it is in this second cubbyhole that a physician and technician sit and monitor the EKG attached to the condemned for telltale signs of death.

[there are also a number of buttons on a console on the wall that have nothing to do with EKGs, but more on that in a moment]

We exited the technician’s room and turned to the left, walking in essence in a circle around the death chamber, which is roughly in the middle of this layout.

The next stop, only feet away, was the prisoner holding area. When someone is under death watch immediately prior to execution, they are brought from death row proper to a cell which is spitting distance from the chamber itself. Paradoxically, there are five holding cells in a row, though it’s unlikely that there would be more than one inmate in any of them at a given time (I don’t think this state has ever performed multiple executions in one day before).

Continuing to the left, we came finally to the entrance to the death chamber. There is ‘the’ gurney parked in the hallway just outside the portal, neatly fitted with clean white sheets as if ready to use in a few minutes. Stepping inside the room, there are small marks on the floor to show officers where to park the gurney once the condemned has been strapped into place so that everything is visible to the witnesses and the physician and technician. The death chamber, like the witnesses’ room, is not a perfect rectangle, but instead an odd rhomboidal shape, probably because the building was retrofitted for this purpose long after construction. A thin yellowish curtain – there’s that color again – hangs from the ceiling so that staff can set up the gurney before revealing it to observers once everything is in place.

gurney in place, as seen from witnesses' room (courtesy AP)

gurney in place, as seen from witnesses’ room (courtesy AP)

The biggest surprise of my tour? I had been under the impression that the current death chamber was used only for lethal injections. But it turns out that until the late 1980s, it was also the gas chamber! I was astounded to learn this because, honestly, the windows into the technician’s and witnesses’ rooms don’t look very thick. But sure enough, the sole door leading into the small room in which the executions take place is constructed airtight like those on a submarine, with steel bulkheads, heavy thick rubber gaskets, and a hatch wheel. Plus there are vents visible in the ceiling of the chamber through which the cyanide gas goes out to the roof.

Having now seen the setup, I am not certain that I’d want to be a witness with just a pane of glass separating me from instant aerosolized death.

And those buttons on the console in the technician’s room? Those controlled the flow of gas, but it was too much trouble to take them out when lethal injection became the norm, so the piping for the potassium cyanide still exists and just isn’t used.

I hope they’ve removed and stowed the canisters. I didn’t ask.

Given the difficulty that states have encountered in obtaining the necessary chemicals for lethal injection of late – and our current administration’s desire to resume executions – there is talk that we will employ other means to clear the, er, backlog. I doubt seriously that returning to poison gas would be politically palatable. However, I’m told that Old Sparky (the chair) is still stored somewhere in the bowels of the prison, so I wonder if we might be re-wiring the chamber shortly to accommodate the extra voltage needed?

Not sure, but stay tuned.

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