Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Famous People with Alabama Connections: A List (1)

This post and a follow-up continue my efforts to bring together blog writings with a common theme. In these two I include well-known individuals with some sort of connection to the state. These connections can be tenuous, more serious, or consist of one or more visits they made to Alabama. 


P.T. Barnum Comes to Alabama

One of the major film releases this past Christmas season was The Greatest Showman with Hugh Jackman. That musical followed Barnum, one that ran on Broadway in the early 1980's. Both are loosely based on the life of Phineas Taylor Barnum, a 19th century showman whose name is forever linked with humbug, hoaxes, and the Barnum & Bailey Circus. That December film release reminded me that I've wanted to do a blog post on Barnum's visit to Alabama in the 1830's, so let's investigate.

Barnum was born in Connecticut in July 1810 and by his early twenties had established his own newspaper, The Herald of Freedom. He moved to New York City in 1834 to begin his career in show business. The following year he purchased Joice Heth, a blind, elderly slave woman already being exhibited as George Washington's former nurse. She died in February 1836, so Barnum then held a public autopsy to determine her real age. Soon he organized a small circus, "Barnum's Grand Scientific and Musical Theater" and took it on a tour of the south in 1837. That trip brought him to Alabama.

By 1841 Barnum had opened his American Museum in New York City and soon featured the "Feejee mermaid" hoax and the dwarf billed as General Tom Thumb. For the next five decades Barnum brought fabulous entertainment to America and beyond, becoming king of the circus, and still found time to engage in political and civic activity in his native Connecticut and write two memoirs. He died in April 1891, but his combination of showmanship and exploitation continues to influence American popular culture to the present day.

Below are three accounts of Barnum's visit to Alabama as described by himself and in a biography published in the year he died. The complete books are linked to their Project Gutenberg pages.  I have some further comments below in brackets.  

P.T. Barnum [1810-1891] in 1851

Source: Wikipedia


Science is another important field of human effort. Science is the pursuit of pure truth, and the systematizing of it. In such an employment as that, one might reasonably hope to find all things done in honesty and sincerity. Not at all, my ardent and inquiring friends, there is a scientific humbug just as large as any other. We have all heard of the Moon Hoax. Do none of you remember the Hydrarchos Sillimannii, that awful Alabama snake? It was only a little while ago that a grave account appeared in a newspaper of a whole new business of compressing ice. Perpetual motion has been the dream of scientific visionaries, and a pretended but cheating realization of it has been exhibited by scamp after scamp. I understand that one is at this moment being invented over in Jersey City. I have purchased more than one “perpetual motion” myself. [page 14]

A funny incident occurred to me in connection with this great pill. In the year 1836, while I was travelling through the States of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, I became convinced by reading Doctor Brandreth’s advertisements that I needed his pills. Indeed, I there read the proof that every symptom that I experienced, either in imagination or in reality, rendered their extensive consumption absolutely necessary to preserve my life. I purchased a box of Brandreth’s Pills in Columbus, Miss. The effect was miraculous! Of course, it was just what the advertisement told me it would be. In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, I purchased half a dozen boxes. They were all used up before my perambulating show reached Vicksburg, Miss., and I was a confirmed disciple of the blood theory. There I laid in a dozen boxes. In Natchez, I made a similar purchase. In New Orleans, where I remained several months, I was a profitable customer, and had become thoroughly convinced that the only real “greenhorns” in the world were those who preferred meat or bread to Brandreth’s Pills. I took them morning, noon, and night. In fact, the advertisements announced that one could not take too many; for if one box was sufficient to purify the blood, eleven extra boxes would have no injurious effect. [page 69] 

[Barnum goes on to tell how he meets Dr. Brandreth when he returns to NYC and the good doctor tells him he has no agents in Natchez and the pills Barnum bought must have been counterfeit. So it went in the patent medicine trade.]

[See below for more on that "awful Alabama snake".]


Barnum, P.T., Struggles & Triumphs, or Forty Years' Recollections of P.T. Barnum [1869]

In going from Columbus, Georgia, to Montgomery, Alabama, we were obliged to cross a thinly-settled, desolate tract, known as the “Indian Nation,” and as several persons had been murdered by hostile Indians in that region, it was deemed dangerous to travel the road without an escort. Only the day before we started, the mail stage had been stopped and the passengers murdered, the driver alone escaping. We were well armed, however, and trusted that our numbers would present too formidable a force to be attacked, though we dreaded to incur the risk. Vivalla alone was fearless and was ready to encounter fifty Indians and drive them into the swamp.

Accordingly, when we had safely passed over the entire route to within fourteen miles of Montgomery, and were beyond the reach of danger, Joe Pentland determined to test Vivalla’s bravery. He had secretly purchased at Mount Megs, on the way, an old Indian dress with a fringed hunting shirt and moccasins and these he put on, after coloring his face with Spanish brown. Then, shouldering his musket he followed Vivalla and the party and, approaching stealthily, leaped into their midst with a tremendous whoop.

Vivalla’s companions were in the secret, and they instantly fled in all directions. Vivalla himself ran like a deer and Pentland after him, gun in hand and yelling horribly. After running a full mile the poor little Italian, out of breath and frightened nearly to death, dropped on his knees and begged for his life. The “Indian” levelled his gun at his victim, but soon seemed to relent and signified that Vivalla should turn his pockets inside out—which he did, producing and handing over a purse, containing eleven dollars. The savage then marched Vivalla to an oak and with a handkerchief tied him in the most approved Indian manner to the tree, leaving him half dead with fright.

Pentland then joined us, and washing his face and changing his dress, we all went to the relief of Vivalla. He was overjoyed to see us, and when he was released his courage returned; he swore that after his companions left him the Indian had been re-enforced by six more to whom, in default of a gun or other means to defend himself, Vivalla had been compelled to surrender. We pretended to believe his story for a week and then told him the joke, which he refused to credit, and also declined to take the money which Pentland offered to return, as it could not possibly be his since seven Indians had taken his money. We had a great deal of fun over Vivalla’s courage, but the matter made him so cross and surly that we were finally obliged to drop it altogether. From that time forward, however, Vivalla never boasted of his prowess.

We arrived at Montgomery, February 28th, 1837. Here I met Henry Hawley a legerdemain performer, about forty-five years of age, but as he was prematurely gray he looked at least seventy, and I sold him one-half of my exhibition. He had a ready wit, a happy way of localizing his tricks, was very popular in that part of the country, where he had been performing for several years, and I never saw him nonplussed but once. This was when he was performing on one occasion the well-known egg and bag trick, which he did with his usual success, producing egg after egg from the bag and finally breaking one to show that they were genuine. “Now,” said Hawley, “I will show you the old hen that laid them.” It happened, however, that the negro boy to whom had been intrusted the duty of supplying the bag had made a slight mistake which was manifest when Hawley triumphantly produced, not “the old hen that laid the eggs,” but a rooster! The whole audience was convulsed with laughter and the abashed Hawley retreated to the dressing room cursing the stupidity of the black boy who had been paid to put a hen in the bag.

After performing in different places in Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee, we disbanded at Nashville in May, 1837, Vivalla going to New York, where he performed on his own account for a while previous to sailing for Cuba, Hawley staying in Tennessee to look after our horses which had been turned out to grass, and I returning home to spend a few weeks with my family.

Early in July, returning west with a new company of performers, I rejoined Hawley and we began our campaign in Kentucky. 

[When Barnum came to Alabama in 1837, whites and native Americans were still in conflict in parts of the state and the Southeast. The following year the U.S. military began the forced removal of Cherokees from Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia. Some 15,000 were moved to the Indian Territory--now Oklahoma--along what became known as the Trail of Tears. About one-fourth of the Cherokees died along the route.]


Benton, Joel. A Unique Story of a Marvellous Career. Life of Hon. Phineas T. Barnum [1891]

At the end of February, 1837, they reached Montgomery, and there Barnum sold a half interest in his show to Henry Hawley, a sleight-of-hand performer. He was a very clever fellow and was never known to be non-plussed or embarrassed in his tricks, except upon one occasion. This was when he was performing the well-known egg and bag trick, which he did with great success, taking egg after egg from the bag and finally breaking one to show that they were genuine. "Now," said he "I will show you the old hen that laid them." But it happened that the negro boy to whom had been intrusted the duty of supplying "properties," had made a slight mistake. The result was that Hawley triumphantly produced not "the old hen that laid the eggs," but a most palpable and evident rooster. The audience roared with laughter, and Hawley, completely taken aback, fled in confusion to his dressing room, uttering furious maledictions upon the boy who was the author of his woe.

The show visited various places in Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky, and finally disbanded at Nashville in May, 1837. Vivalla went to New York and gave some performances on his own account before sailing for Cuba. Hawley remained in Tennessee, and Barnum went home to his family. Early in July, however, he formed a new company and went back to rejoin Hawley. But they were not successful, and in August they parted again, Barnum forming a new partnership with one Z. Graves. He then went to Tiffin, Ohio, where he re-engaged Joe Pentland and got together the nucleus of a new company.


In that first excerpt from Humbugs of the World, Barnum asks the probably-rhetorical question, "Do none of you remember the Hydrarchos Sillimannii, that awful Alabama snake?"

Barnum is no doubt referring to the 1844 discovery in Washington County, Alabama, by German scientist Albert C. Koch. Below is a link to the entry and some of its text for a 1972 translation into English of Koch's full account. Below that is the title page and a link to the full text of his 1845 English publication about his fossil discovery.

Oddly, I've been unable to find much more about Koch and this discovery. Further research awaits. 

Koch, Albert C. Journey through a part of the United States of North America in the years 1844 to 1846 

6 editions published in 1972 in English and German and held by 433 WorldCat member libraries worldwide 

"In 1844, Albert Koch, then an obscure but passionate paleontologist, began his remarkable journey. His objective was paleontological exploration, and his travels took him by land and water from Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, to New Orleans and Alabama in search of the gigantic sea serpent, or Zeuglodon. Koch's full, day-by-day, record of his journey was excerpted and published in Germany in 1847. The book, which is extremely rare, is here translated into English for the first time by Ernst A. Stadler, who also provides a thorough introduction to this narrative and to the author's life and his other scientific digs... [The author] provides fascinating descriptions of travel and of American folkways of the mid-1840's"--Book jacket

That 1972 translation is not available in full online, but Koch's 1845 books about the fossil discovery in Washington County in Alabama is online at the Internet Archive as linked below. 

Monday, January 1, 2018

What's Coming to the Blog in 2018?

For the fourth time I'm taking a look at what's ahead for AlabamaYesterdays in the coming year, and what kind of success I've had fulfilling my own prophecy at the beginning of 2017, etc. All previous posts are below.

I maintain a long laundry list of possible blog post topics. Some may never get done, but I keep the wish list going. Here's a few I HOPE to do in 2018:

-Carnegie Libraries in Aabama

-Ambrose Bierce in Alabama

-Alabama Women at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893

-Alabama Author Michael McDowell's 1977 Dissertation on Death

-Birmingham Doctors in 1920

-P.T. Barnum Visits Alabama

-Langston Hughes' Alabama Poems

-There's a Ticket Stub for That [a journey through 30 or so years of movies, concerts, etc.]

-Vladimir Putin's Alabama Connections [just kidding--maybe]

Looking at the list for 2017, I'm pleased to note I actually managed to complete posts on four of the topics listed. These included my dad's time aboard the USS Errol, notes from a trip to some historical sites in Montgomery, several posts on 19th and early 20th century songs with Alabama connections, and artist Anne Goldthwaite. Hopefully, I'll be at least that successful!

I should also top 400 posts since March 2014 sometime this year. See you in the funny papers. 


What's Coming to the Blog in 2017?

On January 1, 2016, I posted an item under a similar title purporting to described what was coming to the blog in the coming year. I had done the same thing in 2015; both of those posts are copied below.

So here I am wondering what's coming in 2017. Looking back at the predictions for 2015 and 2016, I realized I actually have posted some of the stuff I listed.

I did explore the Alabama connections in Rock Hudson's 1953 film The Lawless Breed. I have started a series and completed several entries on actresses from Alabama who achieved fame in Hollywood before 1960. I did take a look at Augustus Thomas' 1891 play "Alabama" and some old Alabama postcards.

I will leave topics listed in 2015 and 2016 but not yet covered to discovery by discerning readers. They all remain on the "to do" list.

I also hope to get around to at least some of these topics in 2017:

-Dad and the USS Errol

-A Visit to Montgomery

-The Lady from Lipscomb Who's Buried in Austria

-More Early Alabama Songs

-Harriet Martineau Visits Alabama in 1835

-Alabama's Weird Tales Connections

-Anne Goldthwaite, Alabama Artist

Sometime fairly early in 2017 I will also be putting up the 300th post on this blog. Scary. I started the blog in March 2014 and have posted some 285 items so far. Scary.

As I noted in closing the 2016 speculations, the various series such as "Alabama Book Covers", "Old Alabama Stuff", "Birmingham Photos of the Day" and so on will continue. And other topics will surely pop up that I don't even see coming at me yet. Isn't this fun?

And as granddad still used to say, "See you in the funny papers."

You do know what funny papers are, don't you?


What's Coming to the Blog in 2016??

On January 1, 2015, I posted a document with a similar title. Here I am again one year later doing more or less the same thing.

First, let's take a look at last year's list, which you can also find below. I've actually posted blogs on a couple of the topics I intended to do. In February I covered the film The Lawless Breed and its connections to Alabama. Two more postings in that series followed during the year and more are in the pipeline.

I also started the series on film actresses from Alabama before 1960 and have posted on Lois Wilson and Gail Patrick. Dorothy Sebastian is next and others will follow.

And that's it. All the other topics I listed a year ago have yet to appear on this blog. What can I say? I'm easily distracted. Don't worry; they are all still in that mythical pipeline and some may even pop up in 2016. I also have many other topics "coming soon":

-What was America's first female detective doing in Montgomery before the Civil War?

-Some old Alabama postcards and the messages they send to us

-Some Alabama medical ads in 1911

-Augustus Thomas' 1891 play "Alabama"

Of course, the various series such as "Alabama Book Covers", "Old Alabama Stuff", "Birmingham Photos of the Day" and so on will continue. And other topics will surely pop up that I don't even see coming at me yet. Isn't this fun?

And as granddad still used to say, "See you in the funny papers." You do know what funny papers are, don't you?

What's Coming to the Blog in 2015??

People will be born, people will die. People will fall in love, get married, fall out of love, get divorced--wait, wrong list!

What's in store for THIS BLOG in 2015? Maybe I can get more specific with that one.

I began this blog in March 2014 and by the end of the year I'd put up 95 postings. Crazy. Topics ranged from old books to silent movies to old photos to abandoned drive-ins to a giant frog in Mobile. Oh, and Alabama Pizza Pasta in London. All of it related in some way to Alabama history. Mostly.

This year the onslaught of random quirkiness will continue:

-What's the Alabama connection in Rock Hudson's 1953 film The Lawless Breed?

-Who were some well-known movie actresses from Alabama--besides Tallulah Bankhead--long before Kate Jackson, Louise Fletcher, Courtney Cox and Kim Dickens?

-What three famous film directors have Birmingham connections?

-Who were all those photographers criss-crossing Alabama for the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s?

-Who were three female writers from Alabama whose first names began with Z?

-Who was Ambrose Bierce and why did he come to Alabama in the 1860's?

-What kind of career has train robber Railroad Bill had in blues and folk music?

-Will the madness ever end?

As my grandfather used to say, "See you in the funny papers."

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Jackie Green & the Five Spirits of Rhythm, "Alabamy Bound"

I recently ran across a soundie with an Alabama connection. 

What's a "soundie", you ask? Well, according to Wikipedia, soundies were  "three-minute American musical 16mm films, produced in New York CityChicago, and Hollywood, between 1940 and 1946, each containing a song, dance and/or band or orchestral number." They were shot live and distributed around the country for showings on coin-operated film jukeboxes in nightclubs, bars, restaurants, factory employee lounges and similar spaces. In other words, they were an early form of what we call music videos. A similar performance technology, telescriptions, was used from 1950 until 1952.

The soundie I have in mind is a 1941 recording of "Alabamy Bound", which features the 1924 Tin Pan Alley song by that title. Music for the tune was written by Ray Henderson and lyrics by Buddy DeSylva and Bud Green. All three of those men were highly successful in popular music for decades beyond their collaboration on "Alabamy Bound."

Their song was first recorded in 1924 by Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra. Since then numerous other groups and individuals have put their spin on it. Some surprising singers include Dean Martin and Bobby Darin. Bing Crosby recorded it twice, first in 1957 and again in 1975 on his album A Southern Memoir that also includes "Stars Fell on Alabama". Al Jolson and Ray Charles also recorded it. The song appears in various films, as noted in the Wikipedia entry, including Woody Allen's 1985 The Purple Rose of Cairo, where it's sung by actor Jeff Daniels. 

Most relevant to our "soundie" is another popular performer of the 20th century, singer, actor, comedian, etc., Eddie CantorThe singer in the soundie is a Cantor impersonator named Jackie Greene. Cantor himself performed the song a cappella in the 1944 film Show Business

Beyond his appearance in this film, I've been able to learn almost nothing about Greene. He did appear as Eddie Cantor in the Broadway musical "You'll See Stars." The show lasted 5 days, December 29, 1942 through January 2, 1943 at Maxine Elliott's Theatre in New York City. The show was essentially a gimmick revue in which other actors played performing stars of the day such as George Jessel, the Marx Brothers, Cantor, etc. 

The 1941 soundie opens aboard the Santa Fe Special train. Greene begins the song in the lounge car among various passengers appreciatively tapping along. Then the instrumental break features a long sequence in which four of the Five Spirits of Rhythm do not sing but perform stereotypical bits as train porters shining shoes. Then another lengthy scene features four young women in a sleeping car showing off their long, bare legs. The short film ends with Greene singing and surrounded by all Five Spirits of Rhythm.

The Spirits of Rhythm was a jazz string band active for about a decade beginning in the early 1930's. The number of members varied, but the five in this soundie are playing on the soundtrack. Unfortunately, we do not get to see them play. Guitarist Teddy Bunn was a member at this time.

This soundie was produced by Sam Coslaw and directed by Dudley Murphy. The two men were both active in the film industry for several decades. Coslaw was also a well-known singer and songwriter in the early years of his career. 

You can find videos of "Alabamy Bound" performed by an incredible number of musical artists here. And don't let those heebie jeebies be hangin' round!

Sleeping berths aboard the train are mentioned in the song's lyrics and are thus perfect spots for several shots of bare female legs. 

The real Eddie Cantor [1892-1964]

Source: Wikipedia

Alabamy Bound

I'm Alabamy bound
There'll be no Heebie Jeebies hangin' 'round
Just gave the meanest ticket man on earth
All I'm worth, to put my tootsies in an upper berth
Just hear that choo choo sound
I know that soon I'm gonna cover ground
I'm gonna holler, so the world will know
Here I go, I'm Alabamy bound

Just hear that choo choo sound
I know that soon I'm gonna cover ground
I'm gonna holler, so the world will know
Here I go, I'm Alabamy bound
I'm Alabamy bound

Source: LyricWiki 

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The EOA & Yours Truly

The Encyclopedia of Alabama defines itself as "a free, online reference resource on Alabama’s history, culture, geography, and natural environment." The EOA has been around for some years now, and contains numerous articles related to the state. I've been able to write a few of those articles, and here's a list.

All but one of these pertain more or less to the state's medical history. 

  1. Lloyd Noland

    Physician Lloyd Noland (1880-1949) served with Alabamian general William C. Gorgas in the Panama Canal...
  2. Cornelius Nathaniel Dorsette

    Cornelius N. Dorsette (1852?-1897) is often identified as the first licensed or certified black physician...
  3. Halle Tanner Dillon

    Halle Tanner Dillon (1864-1901) was an African American physician who became the first woman certified to practice medicine in Alabama.
  4. Southern Research Institute

    Established in 1944 as the first independent scientific research center in the Southeast, the Southern...
  5. Octavus Roy Cohen

    Octavus Roy Cohen (1891-1959) was a journalist and prolific author of fiction who published more than...
  1. Medical Association of the State of Alabama (MASA)

    Organized in 1847, the Medical Association of the State of Alabama (MASA) became the first statewide...
  2. Graefenberg Medical Institute
    The Graefenberg Medical Institute, founded in 1852 in Dadeville, Tallapoosa County, was the first functioning...
  3. Arthur McKinnon Brown
    Arthur McKinnon (some sources give McKimmon) Brown (1867-1939) was one of the earliest African American...

Birmingham Medical College

Birmingham Medical College (BMC) was a for-profit educational institution that operated in the city from 1894 until 1915.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Movies with Alabama Connections: SpaceCamp & Space Warriors

Both of our kids spent a week at Space Camp in Huntsville back in the 1990's, so I've been planning a post on these two films for a while now. I recently watched Space Warriors for the first time, so here we are. I've also seen SpaceCamp, although not in a good while.

SpaceCamp was released on June 6, 1986, advertised as "The Summer's Greatest Adventure". The film cost somewhere north of $18 million and box office was only about half that, no doubt a disappointment to production company ABC Motion Pictures. The film had the bad luck to be released less than six months after the space shuttle Challenger disaster in January. A tie-in novel by Joe Claro was published by Scholastic.

The film was the first feature directed by Harry Winer. The cast includes such then or soon-to-be well known actors as Kate Capshaw [star of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, etc., and future Mrs. Steven Spielberg], Lea Thompson [star of Back to the Future and many other films] and Kelly Preston [star of Twins, Waiting to Exhale, etc and future Mrs. John Travolta]. Also appearing are Joaquin Phoenix [as Leaf Phoenix] and veteran actor Tom Skerritt. The music was composed by John Williams of Stars Wars and many other films; the cinematographer was another industry veteran, William A. Fraker

Some filming was done at the Huntsville Space Camp, but the film is set at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Astronaut Capshaw, who has not yet worked on a shuttle mission, is instructor of four teens who come to the camp. Various romantic, robotic and other hijinks ensue in addition to training until the group boards the shuttle Atlantis to experience a routine engine test. A problem that only movie magic can create requires the actual launching of the shuttle. After a visit to a space station to pick up extra oxygen, one of the female campers safely lands the shuttle. 

Space Warriors came out in 2013 and follows two competing Space Camp teams as they vie for a chance to visit the International Space Station. A lively group of young actors play members of the two competing groups. Several veterans also appear in the film including Mira Sorvino and Dermot Mulroney, who play the parents of the precocious Jimmy [Thomas Horn], leader of the Warriors team. 

Jimmy has been denied permission to go to Space Camp. His father is a former astronaut and his lawyer mom worries about disaster in space. So Jimmy comes up with an elaborate scheme to fool his parents and take the spot he has won in a world-wide competition. Josh Lucas plays Col. Roy Manley, a friend of Jimmy's father and the one in charge of the competition.

Another veteran, Danny Glover, plays the Space Camp Commander, who notes in his opening remarks to the competitors that he welcomes them to his home state. The credits for the film declare, "Filmed in Huntsville, AL and at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center." Early in the film "Huntsville, Alabama" is noted onscreen as well and mentioned several times. 

Both of these films are far-fetched, but fun to watch especially for those of us from Alabama. The cast members are appealing and the special effects are well done. Too bad neither film made much of a dent at the box office.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: IMDB