Tracy S. Morris

Quirky Mysteries, Screwball Fantasy and Sassy History

I am Not Making This Up: Ep. 21 The Fabulous Fox Sisters

Written By: Tracy - Jul• 17•17
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The Fox Sisters. Margaret on the left, Kate at center and Leah on the right.

Imagine if you were 11 years old, and your April fool’s prank got out of hand. So out of hand that it spawned a major religion? 

This actually happened to Kate Fox. She, along with her two sisters, Maggie and Leah ended up helping to found the Spiritualism movement after a practical joke got out of hand. 

 

When Apple Pie Came In Coffins

Written By: Tracy - Jul• 10•17
This is the pie I made for Independence Day. The recipe is below.

This is the pie I made for Independence Day. The recipe is below.

Here in the United States, we’ve just celebrated our Independence Day, during which we eat a lot of apple pie. 

Apple Pie is an iconic American food. The saying goes: as American as baseball, mom and apple pie. 

But, like most iconically “American” foods (I’m looking at you, pizza and French fries), Americans didn’t invent the apple pie (We just Americanized it).  Apple pie in some form or another is even older than America. 

The origins of apple pie are murky. Apples are an ancient species related to roses (you can see this in the way both apples and rose hips form: by swelling from the stems of blossoms). Alexander the Great is credited with bringing apples back from Asia. (Although this may just be a story. Archaeologists have found evidence of apples in Iron Age Switzerland.)

The first pies (non-apple) didn’t resemble pie as we know it today. Instead they grew out of the need for food that was portable and would not spoil.  

Wrapping food in a grain shell sealed it away from germs and prevented spoilage. (though early people didn’t know what germs were. They just knew that it worked. And the shell would double as a plate/bowl. So bonus!)

The crust wasn’t edible (usually burned crispy) and would be tossed out once the filling was eaten. (Most of the time.  There are some accounts of people eating the juice-soaked soft inner shells of meat pies.)

This was especially useful for nomadic people, soldiers or sailors, who needed portable food. 

There is a recipe for chicken pie written on clay tablets in ancient Sumer sometime around 2,000 BC. 

The Ancient Romans may have been the ones to spread apples across Europe. No word on if they baked them in pies (though they certainly made cheesecake with a pastry base). 

The first reference to apple pie is in a recipe dating to 1318 England. The recipe calls for figs, apples, raisins, pears and saffron. (No sugar though. In those days, sugar was apparently more expensive than saffron.)

This type of pie was baked in an inedible shell called a cofyn, or coffin in modern spelling. (Which had nothing to do with funerals. The word coffin was once a genetic word that meant chest or box.) 

Variations on Apple pie as we know it appear in recipe books across Europe by 1514. 

The first settlers who came to North America couldn’t afford to be apple lovers. The native apples they found were crab apple species. And although they brought Apple spurs with them, the North American bees didn’t pollinate the trees as well as European species.  

They did love pie, though (colonists, not bees). Pie allowed the colonists to stretch their ingredients, using less flour than bread would. All of this baked into a shallow round dish to cut corners.

Initial apple production was so tiny, apples had to be saved for important things like making hard cider. (Because non-sugar-containing apple pie was not as appealing or as long-lasting to the typical colonial as alcohol.)

So how did America go from the land of cider-makers to the land of apple pie?

We can start with a man named John Chapman. Chapman is known in America as folk hero Johnny Appleseed. In stories, he walked the frontier barefoot with his camp saucepan on his head and a bag of apple seeds over his shoulder. Wherever he went, he planted seeds so that settlers going west would have apples to eat. 

The reality was that Chapman did plant apple orchards, and years later sold the land for profit. But thanks to the story, apples have become part of the westward expansion narrative of America.  

Prior to the temperance movement, apples were still more popular for use in cider than in pie. Because? Booze. 

But during the temperance movement, American apple growers needed to find a new outlet for their produce (since there was no more booze.  (Legally, anyway.) So they coined the phrase “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” to encourage more people to eat apples.  (And apples – at least the organic ones – are good for you.  An apple contains fiber and pectin, which help keep your GI tract clean.)

Apple growers may also have come up with “as American as baseball, mom and apple pie.” However, the phrase became popular with soldiers oversees in WWII. 

Today, America is second in apple production only to China. Red delicious is the most popular for eating, though it has it’s detractors.  

For a good pie apple, pick a tart apple like a Granny Smith. Sweeter apples like Red Delicious tend to fall apart and become a mushy mess.

And here is a good apple pie recipe (no coffin needed):

Crust (makes 1 9″ double crust or 2 single crusts)

  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 2 sticks chilled unsalted butter, cut into pieces
  • Ice water

Mix dry ingredients.  Cut in butter with a pastry cutter until it resembles cornmeal.  Add ice water and work with hands until a dough forms. Roll the dough into two balls (for a single pie with a double crust, make the disk for the bottom crust slightly bigger) flatten into disks and wrap in plastic.  Refrigerate at least 1 hr and up to 48 hours  (You can freeze up to 4 months).

Pie filling:

  • 8 apples (I like Granny Smith)
  • 2 tablespoons fresh Lemon Juice
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 1 teaspoon apple pie spice
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons butter (room temperature)

Peel, chop and core apples.  You want the Apple chunks to be smaller.  Remember, you’re making a pie, not an apple dumpling.  

Toss with lemon juice, flour, sugar and spice. 

Roll out the crust on a well-floured surface and fit it into a pie pan (for a 9 inch pie pan, roll out a 12 inch disk).   Pile the apple filling in the pie, arranging the apples to fit. Dot the butter over the apple filling.

If you are going to use the top crust, roll it out and place it over the top.  Pinch the edges of the crust together and then trim the edges with a knife. Cut slots to  vent steam in the top crust. 

If you are using a single crust, trim the edges.  You can build a lattice with the trimmings, or leave the top off. 

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Bake the pie for 45 minutes.  Check the pie and cover the rim with foil to prevent over-browning. Return pie to the oven and continue baking until crust is brown and filling is thick and bubbly (up to 10 minutes more). 

I Am Not Making This Up: Ep. 20 Tell My Friend Willie Brown

Written By: Tracy - Jul• 03•17
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One of the few photos of Johnson that can be authenticated.

Robert Johnson is known as the king of Blues and the granddaddy of Rock and Roll, influencing some of the biggest names in music from Bob Dylan to Eric Clapton.

Johnson’s life is shrouded in myth, and fans have filled in the gaps with even more myth. Legends say that he sold his soul at a crossroads in Mississippi to gain his legendary guitar skills. 

I Am Not Making This Up: New York’s First Subway Ran On Air

Written By: Tracy - Jun• 26•17

Wasn’t this the wallpaper at Subway for years?

Have you ever used the pneumatic tubes at the drive through of a bank?  The vaccuum cleaner- like tubes that pull a capsule from your car over to the teller seem like they’d be a fun roller coaster if you enlarged them to human size. 

Something similar became New York’s first attempt at a subway from 1870-73.  And while the attempt was not exactly like a roller coaster, it was a novelty to New Yorkers. 
 
The pneumatic transit was the brainchild of Alfred Eli Beach, one of the publishers of Scientific American. He conceived of it to relieve traffic problems along Broadway. 
 
The transit as Beech envisioned it was to be a 5 mile underground tube running from Central Park along Broadway. It was to be built with a tunneling shield of his own design, and consisting of a car that moved by being pushed on a cushion of air. 
 
Beech initially worked with Tammany Hall, but as Boss Tweed fell out of favor Beech claimed that Tweed opposed the project.  Pushback actually came from Broadway property owners who worried that someone building a tunnel under their properties would cause them to collapse. 
 
When Beech couldn’t secure the permits for his project, he instead applied for permits for a pneumatic mail system, then simply expanded that project to encompass a people mover. 
 
The resulting “proof of concept” subway was 1 block long, with a car that could seat 22 people.  The single terminal was very ornate, with frescoes and a piano in the waiting room.  Passengers would board the cars, ride the length of the tunnel, then ride back. 
 
New Yorkers treated the transit as a novelty. 11,000 tickets were sold in the first week. All proceeds went to charity.
 
So why are we riding the subway instead of pneumatic tubes today?  
 
Timing. 
 
Beech had trouble getting permits to expand his project. By the time he got the permits, public interest in the project had dropped off. The ride was closed within three years. 

 

Like much of New York’s forgotten past, the transit captures public imagination.  The Pneumatic Transit has been referenced in books, movies, and TV.  No roller coasters, though. 

I Am Not Making This Up: Ep. 19 How The West Was Spun

Written By: Tracy - Jun• 19•17

 

*Note: Not With Actual Congress

Go anywhere in the world, and ask people what they think of Americans, and the word “cowboy” is likely to pop up.  How is it that a brief 50 year period involving the least populated part of the United States has come to define the country as a whole? 

 

You can thank – or blame depending on your viewpoint, a man named Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West show.

I Am Not Making This Up: Hoaxes And Humbugs

Written By: Tracy - Jun• 12•17
P.T. Barnum is famously quoted as saying “there is a sucker born every minute.”  While he may not have said it, it’s easy to conceive that he believed it, with some of the “humbugs” he exhibited.  
 
Here then, are some of the more famous humbugs associated with P.T. Barnum.
 
The “FeeJee” Mermaid
 

Not the kind of mermaid your child wants to theme a birthday party around.


Barnum exhibited his FeeJee mermaid in his American Museum.  The exhibit featured the head and torso of a mermaid sewn onto the tail of a fish.  The original probably burned with Barnum’s museum, though several copies exist.  You can see photos and video on the internet, if you want something to fuel your nightmares.
 
The Cardiff Giant
 
The Cardiff Giant was a hoax created by George Hull, a tobacconist and atheist to make a local Methodist preacher look foolish after the two quarreled. 
 
Hull had a 10 foot statue carved from gypsum in the likeness of a man.  He then had it buried on the farm  of his cousin, William “Stub” Newell in Cardiff, New York. 
 

You could say it was a giant hoax.


Newell waited a year, then had a well dug, and waited for the diggers to find the giant. 
 
The giant “petrified man” was immediately proclaimed by some ministers as evidence of biblical giants, though archaeologists said it must be fake.
 
Newell immediately started exhibiting the giant, and turned a hefty profit.  
 
Barnum wanted to buy the giant.  When the trust controlling the giant wouldn’t sell it, Barnum had his own created, and exhibited it as the “real Cardiff Giant.”
 
The Egress
 
When Barnum’s museum had a problem with overcrowding, he solved it by putting up signs advertising “the great egress.”  When curiosity seekers rushed to see the egress, they found themselves exiting the building.  Egress was a word Barnum used to mean exit. 
 
Though trickery was an element of Barnum’s attractions, Barnum made being tricked a feature, not a bug.  Even as he conned people out of their money, they had such a good time, they never seemed to mind being conned. 

I Am Not Making This Up: Ep. 18 Barnum’s Burning Buildings

Written By: Tracy - Jun• 05•17

 

The water that firefighters used to put out the fire, combined with freezing temperatures turned the museum into a life-sized gingerbread house.

Recently it was announced to the world that in May of 2017, the Ringling brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus would be rolling up it’s tents for the last time.

And while the circus is synonymous with P.T. Barnum today, in his day, Barnum was known for many other business ventures. The circus is something he just kind of fell into.
Barnum could be considered the Elon Musk or Richard Branson of his time. A self made millionaire with his finger on the pulse of America. Barnum revolutionized entertainment for a country that was just starting to have leisure time.

But One thing Barnum is not known for, but maybe should be, are the many, many times a building that he owns burned down.

I Am Not Making This Up: P.T. Barnum and . . . The Other Guy

Written By: Tracy - May• 29•17

When you think of the circus, you think of Barnum and Bailey’s circus. You probably also know about P. T. Barnum. But who was Bailey?


James Anthony Bailey was actually born James Anthony McGinnis in Detroit Michigan on July 4, 1847. He joined the circus the way most little kids dream of doing, by running away. (It helped that he was an orphan).  

Eventually, James started working for Frederick Harrison Bailey at the Bailey Circus. Frederick’s uncle, Hachaliah Bailey founded the Bailey Circus, and pioneered circuses. Under Hachaliah, the first elephant, Old Bet, was introduced to the circus. The entire Bailey Circus was built around Old Bet. 

Frederick took James under his wing. Eventually the two developed a father -son relationship. James took Frederick’s name to become James Anthony Bailey. 

Eventually, James entered a partnership with James E. Cooper, and the Bailey Circus became the Cooper and Bailey Circus. This circus would be the germ of the Barnum and Bailey circus. Bailey and Cooper brought the circus know how, Barnum brought to this circus his museum exhibits (which became the sideshow), his extensive vaudeville contacts, and his ability as a promoter. 

James continues to contribute to the circus. He was instrumental in purchasing the elephant Jumbo for the circus.  

His association with Barnum made him very rich. He built a mansion in New York, supported charities for orphans, and established an orphan’s day at the circus. 

Bailey died in 1906, from a skin infection. He spent his final days dictating instructions on how to run his circus, insuring that it would continue to run long after his death. 

I Am Not Making This Up: A Jumbo-Sized Story

Written By: Tracy - May• 22•17

When you buy something that’s “Jumbo-sized,” like bread, or large jars of peanut butter, you may not think about where that term comes from. But the original Jumbo was a circus elephant. 
We associate the word with bigness thanks to P. T. Barnum, and his gift at promotion. And while Jumbo’s story is painted with rosy colors, the reality is anything but happy. 

Jumbo didn’t start life in the circus. He was born like any African Bush Elephant, in the Sudan. His mother was killed by hunters, and he was captured and sold to animal dealers, who sold him to a French Zoo. From there he was sold to the London zoo.

Jumbo’s handlers gave him his name, which is various stories claim is possibly a play on the Swahili words for “hello”and “chief”, the Zulu word for a large package, or Mumbai-Jumbo” a West-African deity. It’s hard to tell. Jumbo’s story is so filled with smoke and mirrors and circus magic, that the truth is distorted. 


As a resident of the London zoo, jumbo would give children rides, and even pull a sleigh in winter. 

In November 1881, James Anthony Bailey purchased Jumbo for the circus he co-owned with P.T. Barnum.  

When the plan became known, there was immediate public outcry (perhaps stirred up by Barnum himself. Because all publicity was good publicity, and because Barnum was kind of a jerk that way.) 100,000 school children sent letters to Queen Victoria begging her not to sell Jumbo. 

The sale went through and Barnum exhibited Jumbo at Madison Square Garden, where he made back his money in short order. 

Thanks to the kerfuffle over the sale, combined with the sensation of the new Jumbo-sized attraction in Madison Square Garden, Jumbo became a word associated with bigness. Thomas Edison named one of his newest gadgets “jumbo”. Disney named the baby elephant in his movie Dumbo, and the mother Jumbo. Everywhere you looked, you had jumbo-sized things. Jumbo burgers, jumbo packs. (Eventually even the jumbo jet, but that would be much later. )

Jumbo lived just five more years in Barnum’s care. In 1884, he was one of Barnum’s 21 elephants that crossed the Brooklyn bridge to prove that it was safe. 

In 1885, while exercising on a train track, Jumbo tripped and impaled himself on his own tusk, dying instantly. In a strange twist, an unexpected train ran over the body of the elephant. 

Of course, Barnum spun the tragedy. That’s what he did. His story claimed that Jumbo died saving a baby elephant from an out of control speeding locomotive. (Possibly after changing into a cape in a Jumbo-sized phone booth). 

Barnum had the body separated and sent bits of it around with his various museums and sideshows, charging admission to see it. 

Eventually the whole body was reassembled, stuffed and donated to Tufts university, where it became the school’s mascot. The body burned in a fire in 1975 (the year I was born, so that’s one elephant I’ll never see). The school’s mascot remains an elephant to this day. 

Jumbo only lived 24 years. In the wild, an African Bush Elephant may live 70 years. A well-cared for animal in captivity may live 80 years. There is a temptation to draw parallels to actors or rock stars who live fast and die young, but Jumbo was no pampered diva. He was a working animal and he was treated like one. 

So the next time you get a Jumbo-sized anything, think of the original Jumbo. His life may not have been Jumbo-sized, even if his reputation was.

I Am Not Making This Up: Ep. 17 Warrior, Princess, Badass

Written By: Tracy - May• 15•17

 

For 100 of these, you can wrestle for her hand in matrimony.

If I asked you to name a badass warrior princess, you might mention Xena or Wonder Woman.  But one real life woman left them all behind.  Her name was Khutulun, and she was the great-great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan.