A BART Memory

Aboard BART, May 2012.

Back when San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit trains had fabric-covered uplholstery , the seating inspired a story: “On BART Trains, the Seats Are Taken (by Bacteria).” That piece was published in 2011 by The Bay Citizen, a short-lived regional news site that partnered with The New York Times, and it disclosed that the fabric seats were crawling with the nastiest-sounding of microbes. Soon thereafter, BART installed vinyl-covered upholstery— easier to clean, when you get around to cleaning it — on all trains.

Of course, the fabric seats, whose reported rampant filth I was blissfully unaware of and thus unconcerned about after 35 years riding the system, wasn’t why I took this shot back in 2012. Those origami flowers someone left behind were one of the nicest things I’ve ever seen on BART or any public transit. They also remind me of “Blade Runner.”

Today’s Top Finding: Mellifera and Mellifera

A European honey bee, Apis mellifera, harvests nectar from a blossom of black sage, Salvia mellifera.

We dug up our lawn over the last two or three years after a long period of drought-induced neglect that had turned the grass patch into a weed patch. In its place we have created what I call “Kate’s Meadow,” a semi-tidy but very colorful collection of mostly native flowering plants.

I went out the other day to take pictures of one of the plants, a black sage that’s been attracting lots of bees. I’ll occasionally post my pictures of plants and animals on Flickr, and when I do, I’ll look up the species name. I was curious when I saw that honey bees, Apis mellifera, share an epithet with black sage, Salvia mellifera (the epithet being the second word in the binomial genus/species name).

What’s the explanation for the shared epithet?

Apis is Latin for bee, and mellifera is Latin for “honey bearing.” Swedish taxonomist Linnaeus designated European honey bees as Apis mellifera, honey-bearing bee, in the 18th century. According to some sources, he quickly regarded that name a mistake and attempted to change it to Apis mellifica — honey-making bee. But under later-adopted rules of scientific nomenclature, the older, “mistaken” name takes precedence.

Black sage came by the designation Salvia mellifera thanks to U.S. botanist Edward Lee Greene, a member of the University of California faculties in the 1880s and ’90s. In a series of papers published under the title “Pittonia,” Greene set out to correct what he viewed as the misclassification of North American sages, adding them to the genus Salvia and subtracting them from Audibertia, used by the botanist George Bentham in the 1830s.

The only clue I can readily to Greene’s use of mellifera as the epithet for this species is his comment in describing the black sage as “one of the principal bee-plants.”

Black sage, Salvia mellifera, flowering in Kate’s Meadow.

Anniversaries Not in the News

The house in the woods. 2018.

This is a mini-post that would likely fit in a tweet, but: Sitting here, back at work after a week off, it occurred to me that this Friday is June 10. And June 10 is an important family date: It’s the fifty-sixth anniversary of my last day in sixth grade at Talala Elementary in Park Forest — that’s tah-LAH-lah, for those wanting a pronouncer — and of the day we moved into the new house Mom and Dad had built in the woods just outside town. And strange to say: Though I lived there for just a decade, that house and those woods felt and still feel like the place I grew up, the place I’d inhabit if somehow I traveled back in time to “home.”

Road Blog: Going South

Highway 33, Kern County.

We’re down in Los Angeles for a few days. The quickest way of getting here, obviously, is to fly. It’s a one-hour flight. But we generally drive, and that’s mostly because we like seeing the country along the way.

However.

The main route between the Bay Area and L.A. is Interstate 5. And while a lot of the territory between metropolises is interesting and picturesque, and all of it is worth seeing and contemplating, that particular highway is a real drag. The volume of traffic can be intense, for one thing. For another, many, many, many, many drivers tend to camp out in what is known unironically in much of California as “the fast lane.” That’s especially true if a driver sees a truck somewhere up ahead — “up ahead” meaning “within sight.” The appearance of truck traffic, which in California has a 55 mph maximum speed limit, causes many drivers to get over into the left (a.k.a. “passing”) lane minutes before they will actually overtake the truck. Once past a truck, many drivers will sight another truck up ahead and figure they might as well just stay over there in that left lane until they pass that one, too. The result is long strings of vehicles lined up in the left lane, even when the right lane is empty. Not only are the lines of “fast lane” traffic long, they usually feature dramatic slowdowns and speed-ups as more cautious drivers brake to maintain some sort of minimum distance between them and the vehicle they’re following; sometimes the slowdowns occur because faster traffic has come up in the right lane and merges into the long line of left-lane traffic; sometimes the trucks get into the act when a slightly faster-moving truck moves to the left to pass a slow-poke semi.

That’s pretty much the way I-5 works most of the 275 or 300 miles or so down the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, and it’s kind of a drag. Yesterday, with less than half of that part of the drive done, I commented to Kate that I wished there was an alternative. Of course there are alternatives if you’re willing to take a much less direct (more time-consuming) route. But having voiced the thought of taking another way, we acted on it. I got off I-5 at Highway 41, the main route between Fresno and Paso Robles and the coast, took it west to Highway 33, then headed south through the Kern County oilfields, and across the Coast Ranges to Ojai and Ventura. I rode the same route on my bicycle years ago, and the memory of the trip across the mountains is vivid. The road did not disappoint yesterday, either.

We finished by taking 101 from Ventura into L.A., arriving early in the evening and well after the most excruciating hours of Friday afternoon traffic. We may have spent an extra couple of hours on the way than we would have if we had stayed on I-5, in part because we could stop as often as we wanted along the way and there was nothing pushing us (me) to go fast. We got where we were going, not necessarily soul-refreshed, but maybe a little less beat up from the tension of a long drive.

Highway 33, Ventura County.

What We All Know

I’m old enough to remember when Charles Whitman hauled a footlocker full of guns and ammunition up to the top of the University of Texas tower and started shooting people. It was the summer of 1966, and part of the horror — and fascination for my 12-year-old self, to be honest — was that the mass murder Whitman carried out was unique. Nothing quite like it had happened in many years, and it would be years before we saw anything similar.

But now?

So many massacres have happened so frequently over so many years that the details now blur and each episode of death and destruction brings to mind others that aren’t so far in the past. A massacre at a Texas school? Without thinking too hard about it, several other school massacres come to mind: Newtown, Connecticut; Littleton, Colorado; Stockton, California; Parkland, Florida. To name just a few.

We’ve gotten used to that — the sudden appearance of the teenager or 20-something bent on slaughter, the death, the litany of thoughts and prayers, the outrage and vows of action. And we wait for the next killer to make his entrance. (I started trying to write this the evening of the white racist 18-year-old’s terror attack on the supermarket in Buffalo. Even though it is just a matter of time before the “next killer makes his entrance,” I’m stunned at how quickly the Texas attack followed the one in New York.)

As a people, if that’s what we can be called, we’ve surrendered to those who insist that their freedom means you accepting the minute-to-minute possibility that anyone you stumble into — on the street, at the store, at work, at school, at church, on the train — can murder you and everyone around you on a whim, for any reason or for no reason at all.

Kate, my wife, went off to spend the day as a substitute teacher this morning. I kissed her goodbye, and when I did, I thought about the possibility that she might not come home later today because someone with a gun had settled on her school as a target. I didn’t say anything, and off she went. The odds are everything will be fine. And that’s exactly what the children, the parents, the teachers and police and everyone else in Uvalde, Texas, thought when they began their routines yesterday morning.

None of this is beyond our capacity to begin changing it. It’s hard to have faith in that notion right now. But would it be so hard, for instance, to ban the sale of assault rifles to people under 21? Or to finally move on a bill to require universal background checks? Will it take a 10-million-parent march on Washington to make those things happen? I don’t know. But one way to ensure that changes like that never occur is to remain silent. And we all still have a voice.

Saturday Rabbit Hole: The $100,000 Bill

The $100,000 gold certificate, printed for only three weeks in 1934-35.
Reverse of U.S. $100,000 note.

The question came up a few mornings ago: What’s the largest denomination currency the U.S. Treasury has ever released? I had vague recall of a $100,000 bill with Woodrow Wilson’s picture on it. Or was it Salmon P. Chase? It was easy to find out.

Per the U.S. Treasure’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing:

“The largest note ever printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing was the $100,000 Gold Certificate, Series 1934. These notes were printed from December 18, 1934 through January 9, 1935 and were issued by the Treasurer of the United States to Federal Reserve Banks (FRB) only against an equal amount of gold bullion held by the Treasury. These notes were used for transactions between FRBs and were not circulated among the general public.”

And Salmon P. Chase is on the no-longer-circulated $10,000 bill, if you were wondering.

In any case, I liked the images of the 100-grand note and thought: That’s a quick, easy post I can put up without spending most of an afternoon on it.

Or maybe not.

A second page on the engraving bureau’s site advises that the $100,000 note “cannot be legally held by currency note collectors.”

Is there a rabbit hole I can go down here?

There is. So let’s get to it.

A Smithsonian Institution page on the $100,000 bill also mentions the prohibition on private individuals owning these notes. The page allows public comments, and a few have been left there over the years. The most recent comment is signed by a Richard M. Sales, who said this:

I possess several of these 1934 Gold Certificate Banknotes presented to me personally by former Heads of State and Sultanates. I would like to know the specific legal statute that states I cannot own or sell them. It is my understanding that the 1974 Executive Order issued by President Gerald Ford released the restriction of owning, trading or selling of all gold certificate banknotes issued by the US Bureau of Engraving. Can I sell these publicly or must I redeem the face value from the US Treasury?

Richard M. Sales

Thu, 2021-12-09 10:05

What an intriguing possibility — someone out there in the world who actually has gotten their hands on not just one, but several of these notes.

Following standard rabbit-hole protocol, I pondered that possibility for a few seconds, then googled “Richard M. Sales.” If you do the same — use the quotation marks — you’ll find United States v. Sales, a federal criminal prosecution, near the top of the results.

The case involves a December 2017 wire fraud indictment issued by a federal grand jury in Eugene, Oregon. The indictment alleges Richard M. Sales scammed would-be investors out of $900,000 as part of a scheme that promised as much as 100 percent return on investment within as little as 60 days.

From what source was this incredible river of returns supposed to flow?

“Although Sales’ description of the details of the investment varied,” the indictment says, “generally, the investors were led to believe that Sales possessed the ability to recover hundreds of millions of dollars worth of U.S. Treasury Notes that were located in East Asia and the Pacific.”

And according to the grand jury, Sales assured investors he was well connected:

“Sales represented that he was the ‘Commissaris’ of a secret group comprised of heads of state, world-renowned economists, the Vatican, and others. He claimed the ‘doctrine of our syndicate’ carried the signatures of John F. Kennedy, Pope John Paul VI [sic], Golda Meir, Chang Kai Shek [sic}, Lee Kuan Yew, Queen Victoria and many others.”

Queen Victoria!

Federal agents arrested Sales in Indonesia and brought him back to the United States to answer the charges in early 2018. As the case proceeded, his fanciful claims about his access to heads of state and immeasurable riches raised questions about whether he could assist in his own defense. U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken ordered a competency evaluation, and two M.D.s and a licensed counselor met with the defendant. Aiken’s later opinion summarized their findings:

Both Dr. Truhn and Dr. Guyton diagnosed defendant with delusional disorder, grandiose type. Defendant’s alleged delusions involve his self-reported previous work and life history. In short, defendant told his examiners that over later portion of his life he was involved in high level international diplomacy and humanitarian efforts. He represents that he has met, interacted with, and advised world leaders such as Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Boris Yeltsin among others. According to the reports, defendant maintained that he has access to large sums of money and assets related to the Bank of China which he used for his humanitarian efforts. At oral argument, defendant explained the history of some of these beliefs which involve thousands of years in history and assets worth trillions of dollars.

But Judge Aiken noted “the diagnosis of a mental disorder alone does not mean defendant is incompetent to proceed to trial.” She found that other evidence — Sales’ clear understanding of the proceedings and the charges against him and his ongoing consultations with his defense counsel — showed he was competent.

In the end, no jury heard the case. Sales pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud and in October 2021 was sentenced to time served in jail and three years of supervised release and ordered to pay $1,028,010 in restitution to his victims.

Sales’ attorney noted in his sentencing memorandum that his 72-year-old client was recently divorced, that he was suffering from heart trouble, and that his sole source of income was a $924 monthly check from Social Security. I’ll add that the terms of his restitution agreement require him to pay at least $25 a month to help liquidate his $1 million restitution debt.

And that’s that, except to note that Judge Aiken passed final judgment on Sales on December 13, 2021. That was four days after Sales, or someone using his name, was inquiring about the legality of the “several” $100,000 notes he claimed to have in his possession.

Mini-Exhibit: Water, Dams, Mulholland, L.A.

Like everyone else who’s walking around with one of these “phones” equipped with a high-quality camera (or are they really decent cameras with mediocre-quality phones?), I take lots of pictures. Sometimes I try to discover a theme in what attracts my attention, but aside from “landscapes” or “birds” or “infrastructure” or “stuff on the street,” I would struggle to name any real thread that ties any of my images together.

But a couple of days ago I was looking a few pictures — just three — I had taken on three separate trips to other parts of California over the last few years and was surprised to see something of a story there.

Here are the images:

That first shot is the Los Angeles Aqueduct, in the Owens Valley just across the highway from Manzanar, the site of the internment camp where thousands of Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II. Kate and I camped nearby, just outside the town of Independence, in 2018. After spending a beautiful September afternoon touring Manzanar, we wandered down to the aqueduct as the sun was setting.

The second shot is the Hollywood Reservoir and Mulholland Dam in Los Angeles. I had wanted to see this place for years, and we made it up on a Sunday afternoon last June while visiting our son Thom.

The third shot shows part of the wreckage of the St. Francis Dam, in San Francisquito Canyon, in northwestern Los Angeles County. The dam collapsed in March 1928, killing about 450 people downstream. You have to hunt a little for the site of the dam, which Kate and I did on the same 2018 trip that took us to Manzanar.

I like the fact all three images were shot on film using relatively antique (1970s-era) Japanese rangefinder cameras. But what ties them together, perhaps obviously, is the connection to Los Angeles, water, and L.A. Department of Water and Power chief William Mulholland.

Mulholland was the principal architect of the Los Angeles water system: He played a leading role in helping secure (or steal, depending on your perspective) the Owens Valley water rights for the city. He engineered the aqueduct that brought the water to Los Angeles. Although he was initially reluctant to build dams and reservoirs to store that water, he designed and supervised the construction of Mulholland Dam, which took all of 16 months to complete in 1923-24. He used that structure as a sort of template for the St. Francis Dam, which was completed in 1926. Mulholland visited St. Francis Dam just hours before it disintegrated and pronounced it sound; the catastrophe ended his career. Although he apparently believed Owens Valley saboteurs were responsible, as they had been for the destruction of some of the aqueduct facilities in the eastern Sierra, he took public responsibility for the tragedy. “Don’t blame anybody else,” he told a coroner’s inquest. “You just fasten it on me. If there is an error of human judgment, I was the human.”

As I say, I just happened to look at the three photographs together the other day and see a story. If I ever have a show, I thought, I’d want to present them as a group. For some reason, I thought a presentation like that would be more complete with a fourth image. I remembered a 2017 visit to Los Angeles during which we stopped at the Department of Water and Power building (a.k.a. the John Ferraro Building), at the corner of First and Hope streets, and just across the way from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the former home of the Oscars.

I took some pictures when we were at the DWP building — all with a digital SLR, not film. Looking back, I found one that I thought I could add to the group — post-processed from color to black and white. It’s looking up from a corner of the building up toward the roof, with the sun just obscured:

What kind of statement is that making? I haven’t come up with words yet, though I like the image. And as I say, if there ever is a show, this one’s going in.

Fifty, But Not -30-

Chicago Today, 5-Star Final (in other words, the afternoon paper’s first edition of the day), May 1, 1972.

Fifty years ago today, I started my first newsroom job.

But wait a second. Let me set the stage first.

I had graduated from high school a semester early. I was inspired in part by a friend whose desperation to get out of school drove him to take a bunch of classes early and graduate a full year ahead of us in the Crete-Monee Class of 1972.

Getting out four months ahead of my remaining classmates seemed as close as I was going to get to any kind of high school accomplishment. I was as average as average could be gradewise, the result of doing occasionally brilliantly in English and history classes and barely achieving passing grades in math and science. I believe I ranked 158th among the 314 students who graduated in ’72, which I joked made me the valedictorian of the bottom half of the class.

And I did get what I considered a valedictory moment: My final semester at Crete, I took a drama class with a teacher named Tommy Thompson. He told me a few weeks into the class that he had a part for me in the school play, which would be put on in January, just before I was done with school. The part turned out to be Nick Bottom, the bombastic fool who’s transformed into an ass in “A Midsummer NIght’s Dream.”

A future newsman holds forth ...
... and then dies a piteous stage death.

So this was January 1972. I didn’t have a plan laid out beyond a position I had staked out a couple years earlier that I didn’t want to go right from high school to college. It wasn’t clear what this non-college period would look like beyond getting together with friends and smoking whatever it was popular to smoke, but I eventually had one idea about that.

We lived in a sort of rural, informal, woodsy subdivision — this was about 35 miles south of downtown Chicago — and among our neighbors out there were the McCrohons — Max, an Australian immigrant, his wife Nancy, an immigrant from Westchester County, New York, and their kids Sean, Craig and Regan.

Max was a newspaperman. He’d first come to the United States in the early 1950s as a reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald. By the time our families met, in the mid-1960s, he was an editor at the Chicago American (a former Hearst paper that the Chicago Tribune had bought and rechristened “Chicago’s American.” But I digress.) In 1969, Max was one of the editors who led the redesign and relaunch of the paper as Chicago Today.

My family was always engaged with the news. For most of my time growing up, I think we got two papers a day — the Tribune, and later the Sun-Times, in the morning, and the Daily News, and later Chicago Today, in the afternoon. We watched the early evening news, national and local, and then the late news. There was no NPR back then, but we would have been listening to that all the time, too, probably.

And “news” just wasn’t whatever happened to be in the papers or on the national and local TV news. For me, the stories that at least in my memory were woven into our daily lives all grew out of the the civil rights struggle and the Vietnam War.

As I wrote a while back, Max and Nancy McCrohon were always welcoming to my brothers, my sister and me. They indulged my presence for hours at a time on weekday nights, where often we’d talk about what was in the papers that day. They’d invite me to stay for dinner, and though it was less than half a mile back home, Max would insist on driving me at the end of the evening.

By the time I was done with high school, Max had been appointed the Tribune’s managing editor, the same position he held at Today. One night when I was over and we were watching the 10 o’clock news, we were talking about what I was going to do now that I had graduated. I don’t remember the particulars, really — the only thing I feel reasonably sure about is that I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do — but I think I asked him what it would take to work at one of the papers. And that’s how the idea of applying for a job as a copy boy at Chicago Today came about. It was a sort of prized entry-level position, and he said he could get my name “shuffled to the top of the list” of candidates.

That was in February ’72, maybe. A couple of months later, probably, I got a call asking if I could start May 1. Yes. I could and I would.

I wish I had a picture of 18-year-old me on that first day. I don’t remember a lot of details. I got to take the Illinois Central — the I.C. — from Richton Park, our station at the southern end of the commuter line, up to the last stop downtown, Randolph Street. The best exit was the one out onto East South Water Street. From there, it was about a five-minute walk to Tribune Tower, where Chicago Today shared space with its parent paper. There were two entrances — the grand one at 435 N. Michigan Avenue, and the more modest one next door at 445 N. Michigan that Today employees used. The newsroom was on the fourth or fifth floor.

Former copy boy at Nathan Hale Court, 445 N. Michigan Avenue, Chicago.

I had the same long hair that I had sported in my “Midsummer Night’s Dream” performance, but for some reason, I thought it would be more dressy or neat or something to wear it in a pony tail, which I could just barely get my unruly mop into. I also wore a pair of corduroys help up by some braided leather suspenders my girlfriend had made. I must have cut quite a figure as I walked into the city room for the first time. I don’t remember whether someone said something or I just saw a couple of smirks, but I reconsidered my style, and the pony tail and the suspenders were retired after the first day.

What did that first newsroom job involve? Well, the term “copy boy” has been retired, too, but basically, you were there to run any kind of errand the reporters or editors or front office secretaries needed. Heading down to the mailroom to get the edition that was just coming off the press. Getting coffee and making sure you remembered just how every editor on the news and copy and city desks liked theirs. Getting lunch for said editors — the most memorable purveyor of which was a basement dive about a block from the paper called The St. Louis Browns Fan Club, whose specialty was a really greasy cheeseburger. I’d be painting less than a complete picture if I left out the shouting and swearing and other indecorous behavior that you’d encounter on at least a daily basis.

None of that sounds like it has much to do with news. Here’s the part that did.

On deadline, our job was to run the typed copy from reporters to the city, copy and news desks. Depending on the shift, there would be somewhere between three and six rewrite men — and they were all men — taking dictation from reporters somewhere out there in the city. They’d write their stories one paragraph at a time on a tissue-thin sheet of paper backed by four carbon copies (also tissue thin). When a paragraph was finished, the rewrite guy would pull it out of his typewriter and call (usually shout): “Boy! Copy!” Or “Copy!” Or “Copy boy!”

Whereupon you’d hurry to the grab the copy and separate the top sheet from the carbons as you walked to the city, news and copy desks, which were clustered at the center of the city room. You’d give the top sheet to the city desk, and the other desk would each get one of the carbons. On edition, that routine could keep you busy.

One of the other jobs we did was watching the wire room, the semi-sound-proofed space where all the wire service teletype machines were spitting out stories from all over. If you were assigned to the wire room, you separate each new story as it came off the machine, then ran it to the desk editor who needed to see it. You also had to make sure the teletypes didn’t run out of paper — the big rolls (which also included carbons) that ran through the machines hour after hour.

Of course, that’s all stuff I had yet to discover on that first day, which was spent “learning the ropes” — how to get down to the mail room and the composing room, say — and filling out paperwork, and maybe hearing about which reporters and editors you had to watch out for.

Fifty years later, and I’m still working in a newsroom — or at least for a newsroom, given pandemic realities. I have thought a lot about what it means to have been lucky enough to get to do this work for so long — not all of the last 50 years have been spent in news, but nearly all of that time was what people might now call “news adjacent.”

I’ve thought a lot about that half century as this day approached. About the technological changes. About all the changes in perception of what news is and what facts are. About the shortcomings of journalism and its triumphs. About the changes in who gets to do the work — it’s very clear in my memory that the Chicago Today newsroom I walked into was all white; there were just two women working in the department as I recall it — and about how much further those changes have yet to go. About all the people I’ve worked alongside. About how we treat each other in the news business. About my own failings. And even about my successes, such as they are.

I’ve thought a lot about all of that, and yet, you know, it takes me a while to gather myself for the challenge of writing about some of it. But yeah, maybe, sometime during this 50th anniversary year that will happen.

For now, I’ll sign off with something I didn’t remember from that first day at work.

You can see our early edition headline at the top of the column here. I have to say, without having read the story in question, that it must have been a really slow news day for a “doctor shortage” to become the lead story in a big-city tabloid.

What I’d forgotten before I spent an afternoon spooling through microfilm at the Chicago Public Library was how the front page evolved that day.

The lead in the next edition was “Lift wage, price curbs for millions,” which is another yawner.

Then something happened less than a mile away in downtown Chicago. Our next-to-last edition, the Green Streak, bannered: “Car rams crowd in Loop, 6 injured!” Yes, there was an exclamation point — it appears to have been a Chicago Today specialty.

The story detailed an incident where a car jumped a curb at State and Washington streets and crashed through one of the display windows at Marshall Fields. It was clear people were hurt.

The story evolved rapidly. The last edition, the Final Streak, is below.

Chicago Today Final Streak, May 1, 1972.

Semi-Private Baseball Experience

Oakland Coliseum, April 19, 2022.

Ballpark attendance isn’t one of the pressing issues of our times. Yet, as a fan who has always watched the numbers — I think the last time the Chicago Cubs drew less than 1 million fans, which used to be some kind of yardstick of, well, something, was 1966, and it made an impression — the story of Major League Baseball in Oakland is perversely fascinating. I won’t go into all the reasons right now the home team, the Athletics, are such a lousy draw. But a lousy draw they are. Tuesday night games are especially lightly attended, and given recent trends, I figured that maybe 5,000 people would show up for the unmesmerizing non-spectacle of the A’s playing the recently very dreadful Baltimore Orioles. But my expectations had been set a little too high. The reported attendance was 3,748, perhaps the smallest crowd I’ve been a part of in more than 40 years of attending games at the Coliseum. Those who made it to the ballpark did get to spread out and enjoy a beautiful evening, pictured above, and see the home team win, if that’s what they were hoping for.

No, They Don’t Write Ledes Like This Anymore

The Berkeley Gazette, February 17, 1896.

Doing impromptu research on railroad mayhem of yore — unwary yard workers and pedestrian getting their feet caught in frogs and then run over by trains and the like — I found myself looking through old, old numbers of the long dead but still remembered Berkeley Gazette.

For a town that had maybe 10,000 people in the mid-1890s, Berkeley seems to have more than its share of dreadful rail episodes. The Gazette did not hold back on details, though it sometimes illustrated an odd sense of priority (no, not propriety) in how it ordered its facts.

An example from the front page of February 17, 1896.

An Awful Death.

Little May Quill Decapitated by the Local.

Only One Eye Witness to the Tragedy, and She Can Give But Very Little Information. 

One of the saddest yet most terrible accidents that has ever taken place in the history of Berkeley occurred last evening at Dwight way, by which May Quill, the thirteen year old daughter of Anthony Quill, a grocery man at the corner of Twenty-sixth and Alabama streets, San Francisco, lost her life by having her head cut off.

I know the style of the day was to provide layers of detail in the descending series of headlines and subheads above the story, but I can’t help but admire the writers and editors who managed to work in the employment details of the victim’s father in the lede without touching on how the victim suffered her gruesome injuries.

Here’s how the San Francisco Call of the same date, on page 11 under the heading “Interesting Report of Up-to-Date News Items From Alameda County”:

Awful Death at Berkeley.

Young Girl Crushed Under the Wheels of a Local Train. 

Was Killed Instantly.

The Wheels Passed Over Her Neck and Severed the Head from the Body. 

There Was But One Witness. 

Little May Quill the Victim—The Train Went on to the Next Station—Who Is to Blame?

Berkeley, Cal., Feb. 16.—May Quill, a girl of 13 years, who lives with Mrs. Michael J. Powell at the corner of Magee [sic] and Allston way, Berkeley, was instantly killed by the 7 o’clock south bound local train this evening while attempting to alight from it near Dwight way station. The wheels passed over her head, completely severing it from her body and crushing it beyond description. No other injuries to her body were sustained save a few bruises. Her clothing was not even tattered. 

(Brutally explicit descriptions of streetcar victims seems to have been a specialty for the Call. Here’s how it described a 1906 incident in which a teenage girl was struck by a car at Mission and Third streets in San Francisco: “Mowed down by the thirty-ton juggernaut, her body was churned round the forward wheels and mangled so frightfully that it became almost welded to the [car] and could not be removed for more than an hour. When it was finally recovered the appearance it presented unnerved the great gathering that had watched employees of the United Railroads working round the car with primitive wrecking apparatus, and heads were turned away as it was borne to the Morgue wagon.”)

I see regular reports about rail deaths in the Bay Area today — mostly involving BART and Caltrain. The prevailing presumption is that most of these cases involve people taking their own lives. BART generally describes these incidents only as “major medical emergencies.” Perhaps the next day, BART police will refer to the incident by saying that they responded to “a report of a person under a train” and adding that the local coroner was called to the scene.

I often feel like those reports are overly sanitized and we ought to know more about the circumstances. How much more? Well, enough to have some insight into whatever the authorities know about the circumstances. The further gruesome details so frequently printed at the turn of the 20th century — no, I don’t need those. But those old accounts do make me wonder about the public appetite for that kind of reporting back then and about how sensitivities appear to have changed so much, at least in some respects, today.