It is easy to find ugliness in this election cycle, but I thought I would take a moment to point out two remarkable happenings that you might have missed.
Clinton and Trump are the most disliked candidates for president that this country has ever seen. And yet, see what they have accomplished without even getting elected…
Hillary Clinton has already broken the ultimate glass ceiling. I see no discussion – in private or in public – about the role of her gender. Clinton did that for you and your daughters. She took gender off the table for the most important job in the land. It doesn’t matter who gets elected now. Clinton already made the gender sale. In 2016, nearly all American citizens believe a woman can, and will, be president. Because of Hillary Clinton. That’s a big deal.
I know that some of you think Clinton “cheated” because she used the advantage of her husband’s presidency to seek her own destiny. But keep in mind that ALL successful people exploit their unique advantages. Clinton just did it better. She isn’t here by accident.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump turned the GOP into a pro-LGBTQ organization. No one saw that coming. And I think it is sticking. That’s a big deal.
So, while we were watching the two most odious personalities on the planet hurl lies and insults at each other, those two odious personalities were bringing civilization toward the light. And succeeding.
Don’t lose that.
You might love my book because I wrote it like a book.
Vincent Gigante, head of the Genovese crime family from 1981 to 2005, feigned mental illness for 30 years in order to throw law enforcement authorities off his trail. Beginning in the 1960s he could regularly be seen shuffling around his Greenwich Village neighborhood in pajamas, a bathrobe, and slippers, mumbling to himself, and quietly playing pinochle at a local club. His lawyers and relatives insisted he had become mentally disabled, with an IQ of 69 to 72.
But informants told the FBI that during this time he was really leading the wealthiest and most powerful crime family in the nation and a dominant force in the New York mob.
At arraignments he appeared in pajamas, and psychiatrists testified that he had been confined 28 times for hallucinations and “dementia rooted in organic brain damage.” “He was probably the most clever organized-crime figure I have ever seen,” former FBI supervisor John S. Pritchard told the New York Times. Mob rival John Gotti called him “crazy like a fox.”
It wasn’t until April 2003, in exchange for a plea deal, that he acknowledged that the whole thing had been a con to delay his racketeering trial. His lawyer said, “I think you get to a point in life — I think everyone does — where you become too old and too sick and too tired to fight.” He died in prison in 2005.
I gotta schedule myself that vacation I need.
My week of Silicon Valley comics continues. So does my visit to Silicon Valley! Heading back to Vancouver tonight
“I would have praised you more if you had praised me less.” — Louis XIV, to poet Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, after a fulsomely flattering verse
Odila é a diferentona da foto. Ela é a única que teve o nome anotado, e a única que posou separada das colegas, ao lado de seu garboso professor.
As razões de tanto privilégio se perderam junto com os envolvidos: a foto tem 97 anos, e não sobrou ninguém que possa explicá-las.
A única que restou é a escada que emoldura a pose, que evidentemente não pode contar a história. Mas só o fato de ela ter sobrevivido já é notável em São Paulo, onde o normal é que as construções (sobretudo as belas) desapareçam antes das pessoas.
Pensando bem, a escada é outra diferentona na foto.
A foto antiga, com um 1919 anotado no verso, estava em um sebo em Santos. A foto atual fui eu mesmo que tirei hoje de manhã, na Escola Estadual Conselheiro Antonio Prado, na Barra Funda.
"Something was very wrong. Here was this guy from nowhere, and he kept going around the board and hitting the bonus boxes every time. It was bedlam, I can tell you. And we couldn't stop this guy."
~ Michael Brockman, head of the CBS daytime programming department, 1984
On May 19, 1984, before a live studio audience for the game show Press Your Luck, a squirrely-looking, gray-bearded 35-year-old named Michael Larson leapt from behind his podium and squealed with joy.
For the contestant, the show’s catchphrase, “Big bucks, big bucks, no Whammies!”, had just come to fruition: in an era where no single contestant ever won more than $40,000 — not even those competing on the ever-popular The Price In Right, or Wheel of Fortune — Larson had earned $110,237 ($253,000 in 2015 dollars).
And in achieving this, he’d overcome insurmountable odds...or had he?
While CBS executives in the control looked on in horror and disbelief, Larson harbored a secret: he’d cracked the code of Press Your Luck. For months, he’d studied the show’s game board, which lit up squares in a supposedly “random” sequence, and found that, in actuality, it was repeating the same 5 patterns over and over again.
What ensued was one of daytime television’s strangest moments — one that exposed the follies of both man and technology.
Press Your Luck: The Titanic of Game Shows
In September of 1983, a flashy new game show called Press Your Luck hit the daytime broadcast on CBS.
The brainchild of two veteran television producers, it was billed as the most “technologically advanced” program of its kind; utilizing cutting-edge audio-visual equipment, it tempted viewers and contestants with enticingly large payouts.
As far as rules and structure go, Press Your Luck was pretty straightforward. Each episode began with the show’s host, Peter Tomarken, asking the three contestants a series of multiple choice questions. Whoever buzzed first and answered correctly earned three “spins” on the “Big Board,” the prized centerpiece of the game show:
This Big Board was made up of 18 backlit squares, each containing a constant rotation of various cash and item prizes, as well as a selection called a “Whammy.” When a player’s spin began, a selector light rapidly bounced around the squares, lighting them up in a seemingly random sequence; the player would then choose when to slam down a big red button, stopping the board. Whichever square was lit up dictated the player’s fate for that spin. At the end of each spin, the player either had the option to “press his/her luck” (spin again) or pass any remaining spins to the next player.
The board contained a wide array of outcomes: cash amounts ranging from $500-$,5000, vacation packages, material prizes (boats, appliances, etc.), “Pick a Corner” (in which the contestant would select any corner square on the board), various instructions (“Go Back 2,” “Move 1”), and finally, the Whammy. If a player landed on this dreaded tile, an annoying animated gremlin in a red suit would come out and reap the player of every cent he/she had amassed.
Many of the cash prize squares on the board also contained an extra spin (+S). Hypothetically, this made it possible for a player to continue on indefinitely, assuming he/she consistently landed on the cash+spin squares — though the show had made certain that the odds of this occurring were nearly impossible.
Of the Big Board’s 54 outcomes (18 squares with 3 rotating options each), 9 were a “Whammy.” That meant that, on any given spin, a player had 1 in 6 odds of losing everything. What’s more, the team that had programmed the board was confident that both the speed and “random” nature of its sequences would prevent contestants from winning more than $25,000. Over the first few episodes, the average winnings hovered around $14,000.
In the words of former CBS executive Ron Schwab, Press Your Luck was “like the Titanic — it was the technological marvel of its time.” Unfortunately for CBS, and iceberg loomed, and its name was Michael Larson.
The Game Show Hustler
Michael Larson was never interested in following the rules.
The youngest of four boys, he was born in 1949, somewhere between Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio. By middle school, he’d established a lucrative enterprise smuggling candy bars into his gym class and selling them at a considerable mark-up. While tenacious and intelligent, he was always looking for a quick, easy way to get rich.
“He didn’t understand the value of good, hard, honest work,” his older brother, James, later bemoaned. “He thought those people were fools.”
Instead, Larson invested great amounts of time seeking out loopholes and taking advantage of them, often illegally. In one instance, he found a bank that gave out $500 for starting a new checking fund; using fake names, he opened dozens of accounts, waited the minimum necessary duration, then withdrew the money. On another occasion, he registered a business under a family member’s name, hired himself as an employee, then fired himself to collect unemployment benefits.
Throughout his 20s and 30s, Larson only intermittently found real work — first as an air conditioner mechanic, and later, an ice cream truck driver — all the while graduating to more intensive ploys. He began to spend every waking minute in front of a television, watching infomercials and game shows, in hopes of identifying some kind of opportunity to get rich quick.
“He had an entire wall of 25-inch televisions stacked one on top of the other,” recalled his then-girlfriend, Teresa Dinwitty. “He watched them all at once, and it got so hot, the paint peeled off the wall.”
After determining that more popular daytime game shows like The Price Is Right and Wheel of Fortune were un-hackable, Larson began to focus on a relative newcomer: Press Your Luck.
Using his VCR, he recorded episodes; for 18 hours a day, he sat perched in front of the screens, analyzing every spin of the Big Board frame-by-frame, looking for patterns.
Then, incredibly, he found one.
After six months of scrupulous examination, Larson realized that the “random” sequences on Press Your Luck’s Big Board weren’t random at all, but rather five looping patterns that would always jump between the same squares. He wrote down these patterns, memorized them, then honed his timing by watching re-runs and hitting “pause” on his VCR remote when he suspected the board would land on a given square.
Most crucially, Larson determined that two squares on the game board, #4 and #8, always contained a combination of cash and an extra spin. Since he’d memorized the patterns, he knew exactly when the board would land on each square:
Larson analyzed the board and found that each of its 18 squares contained three rotating options (54 total); then, he found that squares 4 and 8 always offered a cash prize with an extra spin (and never contained a dreaded Whammy):
Larson was ecstatic. He’d uncovered a flaw in the game, perfected his technique, and, in his opinion, possessed the ability to amass a fortune. There was just one thing left to do: he had to finagle his way onto the show.
Armed with little more than the address of CBS Television City, Larson spend the last of his ailing funds on a bus ticket from Ohio to Los Angeles, with the intention of auditioning for Press Your Luck.
Bobby Edwards, the show’s contestant supervisor, remembers feeling uneasy when Larson strutted into the audition room:
“We held daily auditions: one in the morning, and one in the afternoon, maybe 50 people in each session. [Larson] walked up right off the street, and told us he was an ice cream man from Ohio...There was something about him that I just didn’t believe. I didn’t trust him.”
Despite Edwards’ doubts, Larson, an ever-enterprising schmoozer, managed to convince Bill Carruthers, the show’s executive producer, that he was a small-town plebeian desperately in need of a chance to win some money. Always in search of a good sob story, the network agreed: Larson was slotted to appear on the fifth taping of the day, May 19, 1984.
Michael Larson Presses His Luck
On the day of filming, Larson arrived early. Dressed in a cheap suit jacket and a shirt he’d bought for 65 cents at a thrift store, he exuded the intense confidence of a man preparing to go into battle. His competitors, Ed Long (a Baptist minister) and Janie Litras (a dental assistant), were completely oblivious to their impending doom.
When the show’s host, Peter Tomarken, asked Larson what he did for a living, his response was self-assured: “I drive an ice cream truck in the summer and I hope to win enough money today not to have to do that.”
Larson got off to a rocky start. On the very first question ("You've probably got President Franklin D. Roosevelt in your pocket or purse right now, because his likeness is on the head side"), he buzzed prematurely and yelled, “$50 bill!” (the correct answer was, of course “a dime”). For the remainder of the question round, he sat silently, with a perplexed look on his face. Eventually, he finished with 3 spins, putting him in last place behind Long’s 4 and Litras’ 10.
Since he’d come in last, the rules dictated that Larson spin first. This did not go well: on his very first spin of the board, he hit a Whammy. However, he quickly recovered: hovering his hands just above the buzzer, he intently watched the light travel around the board, and, recognizing the patterns, hit square #4 ($1,250) on his second and third spins.
Still, at the end of round one, Larson sat in last place, with $2,500:
In round two, Larson came to life.
During the second question round, he managed to correctly answer three questions, bumping his total spins up to 7; since he sat in last place, he again spun first.
With his first two spins, he landed on square #4, earning him $4,000, and $5,000. Then, over 10 ensuing spins, he proceeded to rack up $29,351 in winnings without hitting a Whammy. The audience roared with excitement, yet Larson seemed unsure of himself. While he was aiming to hit squares #4 and #8, he missed his mark four times during this period of play, unintentionally landing on #7 (a trip to Kauai), #17 ($700 + a spin), #6 ($2,250), and #7 again (this time, a sailboat).
After the sailboat, with 4 spins remaining, he locked into what industry execs have since deemed to be one of the "most absurd grooves" in game show history. Over the course of 31 consecutive spins, he persistently nailed squares #4 and #8; astonishingly, 20 of them were $1,000 or higher:
Priceonomics; compiled from archived footage
During Larson’s rally, Tomarken, the show’s host, grew increasingly nervous. His quips graduated from shock (“We’ve never seen this happen! You’re on a roll!”) to disbelief (“This is unreal”), to utter disgust (“You’ve got to be kidding me”) — and once Larson hit the $30,000 mark, he started pressuring the contestant to bow out.
“Michael, you really are PRESSING YOUR LUCK,” he warned at one point, wagging a finger in the air. “After this show, you’re going to get a special call from the president of CBS…”
Finally, 40 successful spins and $102,851 later, Larson passed his final 3 spins to Ed Long, fearing that he was beginning to lose focus. On his very first spin, Long hit a Whammy and lost all of his cash. When the spins were passed to Litras, she too hit a Whammy on her first try. In the hopes that Larson would screw up and lose his cash, she then passed the spins back to him, but Larson did not falter. Instead, he landed $4,750 and a trip to the Bahamas.
When the game ended, Larson raised his arms in triumph and emitted a primal scream: he had secured $104,950 in cash, a sailboat ($1,015), and two all-inclusive trips, which brought his total winnings to $110,237. Ed Long distantly trailed in second place with $11,516 (which he'd earned in a prior episode as a returning champion), and Janie Litras left with $0.
Larson had made a fool of CBS: He'd spun the show's board 47 times. He’d won more than any other daytime game show contestant in history. And he’d done so by finding an inherent flaw in television’s most “technologically impressive” game board.
While Larson celebrated on stage, the powers that be at CBS sat dumbfounded and deflated.
“I wasn’t there that day, but boy did I hear about it,” Bob Boden, a former executive at CBS Daytime Programming, later told TVLand. “It went through the hallways of CBS like a rocket.”
Darlene Lieblich Tipton was in the Press Your Luck control room that day. As a CBS employee, it was her job to ensure that contestants were playing by the rules. In an interview with This American Life, she recalled the mounting tension backstage:
“It wasn’t unusual for contestants to go on streaks. It was kind of the way the game was designed. But after about 10 spins of the board, it started to become obvious that he was hitting same prize in same square every time. And that’s skill — it’s not random, and it’s not luck. He could aim and hit, which we didn’t think was possible. First, the booth got very quiet, then there was an, ‘OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD, what do we do?!’ People were turning to me saying, ‘Can we stop this?’”
Statistically, it was extremely unlikely that Larson had simply gotten lucky. Given the 1 in 6 odds of hitting a “Whammy,” the probability of going 45 spins in a row without hitting one was (5/6)^45, or .027%. Larson had beat odds of roughly 3 out of 10,000.
Despite this, Tipton saw nothing illegal in Larson’s play: he wasn’t visibly breaking any rules, and she could do nothing but helplessly stand by and watch him dominate the show.
The following day, CBS launched a full out investigation. Nearly every department head at the network gathered in a musty room and reviewed the tape frame-by-frame — just as Larson had done on his VCR with Press Your Luck episodes. However, even after this review, they could find no faults in his method. “He fit every criteria,” one executive told GSN. “He had not broken any rules of the game, he had played fairly, and he was an eligible contestant. We paid him his money...he was simply smarter than CBS.”
After Larson’s win, the “Big Board” was re-programmed: its 5 “random” patterns were expanded to 32, and the control panel was replaced by a PC running a far superior randomizer. Larson's streak had gone on so long that CBS had to split the airing into two half-hour segments; the network was so thoroughly embarrassed by the board's flaw that they only aired the episodes once.
In September of 1986, just two years after Larson's Press Your Luck appearance, the show was cancelled.
The Champion’s Downfall
Newly minted with around $90,000 in post-tax earnings, Larson initially indicated that he was ready to turn his life around and be more responsible. “I tried to get him to look at some reasonable investments,” his brother, James, told a reporter. “He put it in the bank...and for some time, was doing the right thing.”
But a few months later, while listening to the radio, Larson heard about a contest he just couldn’t resist: the show read a serial number on air every day, and if a listener could match that number to a $1 bill, he would win $30,000.
Larson visited five different banks, withdrawing nearly $50,000 in $1 bills. Then, over the course of two weeks, he analyzed every bill in hopes of winning. A match never came, and Larson, who’d grown lazy by then, resolved to just leave the bills in his home. This didn’t work out too well: one night, he left to Christmas party and came home to a kicked-in back door. All the money was gone.
This was the beginning of Larson’s downward spiral. Teresa Dinwitty, then Larson’s common-law wife, recalls then that aggression mounted to such a level that she feared for her life. She fled with her children and demanded Larson leave her house.
Eventually, Larson moved to Dayton, Ohio, where he assumed a role as an assistant manager at Walmart, but this didn’t last long. He grew disillusioned with his minimal pay and, after meeting another woman, launched his next venture: a massive Ponzi scheme. Under the name “Pleasure Time Incorporated,” Larson sold shares in a non-existent American-Indian Lottery, and, by the mid-1990s, he’d managed to cheat 20,000 investors out of $3 million. With the SEC, IRS, and FBI hot on his tail, he fled Ohio and disappeared into the void.
When investigators finally tracked Larson to Apopka, Florida in 1999, he’d succumbed to throat cancer.
“Winning that game show was the start of [Michael’s] downfall,” Larson’s brother, James, would later say. “It made him think he could trick anybody, and do just about anything he pleased.”
But it was also a feat that brought out the best in a man who was otherwise a delinquent: Recognizing the board’s flaws required keen observation skills. Mastering the timing of the generator took a unique combination of patience, dedication, and can-do mentality. And performing under pressure in front of a live studio audience demanded a special breed of composure.
In many ways, “gaming” Press Your Luck was the most honest endeavor Michael Larson ever undertook.
For our next post, we explore the probability of marrying a co-worker. To get notified when we post it → join our email list. An earlier version of this post first appeared September 14, 2015.
Note: Priceonomics can help your company get better at creating content marketing that actually performs. Software, training and content creation services from Priceonomics. Starting at just $49 / month.
pieterh wrote on 18 Aug 2016 10:08
There are no easy conversations when it comes to dying. Especially when it comes to a disease like cancer, which eats us up from the inside, a betrayal by our own cells. "Fight it," people still tell me. "Don't give up! We need you!" This notion that cancer is a fight… it's one I want to break down, and then rebuild, in this article. I've come to believe that death can be a positive social experience. Let me explain…
Let me start with this: one does not choose to fight, or give in to, a disease like cancer. Perhaps to any disease. In my body right now there is a holy war going on, and has been raging for years. My immune system has been doing its damned best to kill these rogue cells. And the rogue cells, unaware that they're destroying their own host, have been fighting back. It's no small fight. I've lost 15 kilograms in the last few months.
The odds are on the cancer, of course, which is why this family of diseases is a major killer. Our bodies have to keep winning, year after year. Any given cancer has to win only once, and it's Game Over. The only way to beat cancer, really, is to die from something else first.
So this is my first point. Everyone fights cancer, all our lives long. From birth, our immune systems are hunting down and killing rogue cells. I grew up in the African sun, pale skin burned dark. Do I have skin cancer? No, thank you very much, immune system! Much of my adult life I drank a bit too much, ate too much red meat, too few vegetables. Do I have bowel cancer? No, thank you again, you over-active beast of an immune system, you! Hugs.
And most of us can say the same thing, most of the time. We are all cancer survivors, until we're not.
Secondly I want to attack that notion that we can and should "fight", as a conscious effort. Then third, I'll try to explain some of the real fights that we the terminally sick do have.
So take this easy statement: "you must fight, Pieter. Don't let the cancer win!" It wraps up so many difficult emotions in a neat package. It fits into the "disease is mostly in the mind" 1970's era fantasy that still imagines meditation and positive thinking as the cure for rampaging gene mutations. And presumably cholera, malaria, and broken legs as well.
Worse is the implication of blame. When we die, did we not fight hard enough? If it takes me six months to die, am I doing a better job of "fighting my cancer" than someone who dies in six weeks? It goes beyond senseless into the cruel. We don't "lose the fight" against our cancers, any more than a cell phone loses its "fight" against battery exhaustion. The mutations will always win unless something beats them to it. It is a matter of when, not if.
That fist-pumping "you can beat it!" motif has more insidious effects. It drops responsibility like a ripening melon into the lap of the ill. It leaves the pep talker buoyed with their display of positivity and helpfulness. As a conversation with the dying, it is cheap and unintentionally nasty.
My neighbor, nice guy, every time we met over the last months, did the cheerleader thing. Finally I put on proper cancer face (shaved my head) and met him with my oxygen container, on the street outside our house. "I'm dying now, Hussein," I told him. "The treatment stopped working." He finally nodded, accepting it. Now finally we can talk about real things, like what will happen to my kids when I'm dead, and so on.
Clearing the table of the elephant poop of positivism, we see other creatures skulking about too. Worth mentioning:
Now I'll come to the real struggles of the dying. This isn't a full list, I've not done much field research. More of a sampler to show the point.
What's interesting to me is that in these struggles, other people are key. These aren't solitary conflicts. I've found that they bring my friends and family close to me. We're all involved in this slow process of dying. It may seem horrible, from some points of view. And yet, it is deeply satisfying in other ways. It has become an enriching thing, a collective work.
I'd much rather not die, yet if I'm going to (and it does seem inevitable now), this is how I'd want it to happen. Not fighting the cancer, with hope and positive thinking, rather by fighting the negativity of death, with small positive steps, and together, rather than alone.
Adolph Spreckels had decided to kill the editor-in-chief of the San Francisco Chronicle.
The year was 1884, and the 27-year-old Spreckels wanted revenge over an article the Chronicle had published about his family’s company, the Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company. Spreckels’ father was known as the Sugar King because he’d grown rich by monopolizing the sugar trade between Hawaii and the West Coast. The Chronicle regularly denounced the Spreckels monopoly, and a recent article charged that the company was insolvent and that Spreckels and his father had misled and defrauded shareholders.
“Don’t make a fool of yourself,” a friend counseled as Spreckels followed Mike de Young, the editor-in-chief of the Chronicle. But Spreckels ignored him. He walked into the Chronicle office, called out de Young’s name, and shot him with a large, Navy pistol.
The first bullet landed in de Young’s shoulder. He fell to the ground, and Spreckels advanced and fired. By then, de Young had raised a package of books he was holding like a shield, which deflected the shot from his chest to his arm.
At that point, a clerk in the office pulled a pistol from his drawer and shot Adolph Spreckels in the arm, and a Chronicle cashier vaulted over his desk, tackled Spreckels, and restrained him until the police arrived.
Mike de Young survived the attack, and the resulting trial for attempted murder gripped the city. The Spreckels family, in addition to its sugar monopoly, owned railroads, shipping companies, and real estate. They were a household name; the trial resembled the O.J. Simpson trial.
Today, this history is largely forgotten. Instead, San Francisco remembers Adolph Spreckels for his philanthropy, which created landmarks like the Legion of Honor art museum, and for his status as the nation’s first “sugar daddy.” With the riches earned from the sugar monopoly that the Chronicle criticized, Adolph Spreckels married Alma de Bretteville, a working class girl turned nude model who never hid her ambition to marry a wealthy, older man. According to local lore, Alma called Adolph her “sugar daddy.”
A common perception of the richest residents of today’s San Francisco is of entitled, lawbreaking men: technology entrepreneurs ignoring regulations or suing each other for equity, major landlords evicting tenants on questionable grounds, and male-dominated workplaces driving out women.
But if you think entitlement and wealth define San Francisco today, you should hear what the city was like for the heirs of San Francisco Gold Rush fortunes. Because Adolph Spreckels got away with it. Despite shooting an unarmed man from point blank range, a jury declared Spreckels not guilty.
Reporting on the verdict, the Times said of San Franciscans’ reaction in 1884, “Well, money can do anything in this city.'"
Spreckels’s attempt to assassinate Mike de Young attracted national attention and condemnation. The New York Times called it a “cowardly assault”, and the L.A. Times called it a “dastardly deed.”
Explaining away the attempted murder charge would not be easy for Spreckels. Multiple witnesses confirmed that de Young was unarmed and had not even turned to face Spreckels before the first bullet hit his shoulder. When the police arrived, they found Spreckels and his loaded pistol.
Of course, the wealth of Spreckels’ father did seem to help. After Spreckels’ arrest, San Franciscans were surprised to hear that he’d been released on bail.
The lawyers for Spreckels argued that Spreckels had acted in self-defense—and that Spreckels had acted during a moment of temporary insanity. As the prosecutor in the case told the jury, the two explanations contradicted each other; it was a defense that lawyers would only make when they had no plausible alternative.
Both arguments also went poorly. Spreckels’ claim that he reached for his gun only after seeing de Young reach for his pocket rang hollow given that he had stalked de Young to the Chronicle office and fired before de Young turned around. And while several friends and co-workers offered tentative support for Spreckels’ insanity defense by testifying that he had seemed moody and unfocused the week of the shooting, another friend of Adolph Spreckels recalled that they gaily shared a drink just hours before the attack.
On the day of the verdict, onlookers packed the courtroom. During the five hours the jury—composed of grocers, merchants, an auctioneer, a foreman, and an undertaker—deliberated, crowds outside the courthouse placed bets on the result, which the New York Times referred to as a “genuine surprise.”
The judge called for order, yelling that the rowdy crowd was “scandalous,” the foreman of the jury read the words “not guilty,” and Spreckels and his friends left the courthouse whooping and celebrating.
What went wrong?
According to the San Francisco Chronicle’s (not at all impartial) reporting, the jury was likely manipulated. Just before the verdict, the jurors, who were visible from the street, seemed to be relaxing rather than debating, and two jury members standing near the window dropped a “paper pellet” that was retrieved by a friend of Adolph Spreckels. Soon after, the same friend made a hand gesture to the two jury members, and a court clerk and another man inexplicably locked themselves in with the jury for almost an hour.
No investigative reporters of the era looked into the trial. The country’s newspapers simply reported the result in bafflement. It’s unclear if the Spreckels family used its fortune to corrupt the jury.
But the story of Adolph Spreckels isn’t exactly a story of the rich trampling the poor without consequences. While Spreckels was heir to one of the country’s largest fortunes, his victim, Mike de Young, was no middle class journalist. De Young owned the Chronicle, the most successful newspaper on the West Coast. This meant he was worth at least several hundred thousand dollars (a fortune at the time), and that politicians regularly sought his advice.
Mike de Young also could not have been that surprised at the verdict. After all, one of the last people to escape justice after shooting a rival at point blank range was his brother, Charles de Young.
A Wild West
When Adolph Spreckels shot Mike de Young in 1884, San Francisco was not far removed from its days of lawlessness and vigilante justice.
In 1848, before the discovery of gold in California, San Francisco was home to only several hundred people. California was a frontier, with few roads or bridges. So when 200,000 people arrived in California in 1849-1850, it took time for San Francisco to civilize from a rough-and-tumble mining town into a well-ordered city. As late as 1856, San Franciscans reacted to the lack of a strong police force by organizing vigilante committees that hanged suspected criminals.
The city’s proclivity for violence was made worse by the fact that the whole country still embraced casual shootings: Alexander Hamilton is America’s most famous duel victim, but through the mid to late 1800s, the duel was an American institution and status symbol. As Barbara Holland writes in Smithsonian Magazine, nearly every American politician, including Abraham Lincoln, participated in duels. They were so common that a famous reverend described the United States as “a nation of murderers.”
This was especially true for journalists, who often wrote for nakedly partisan institutions and received dueling challenges from political opponents. The early history of San Francisco journalism is a bloodbath; one editor reportedly hung a sign at his office that read, “Subscriptions received from 9 to 4; [duel] challenges from 11 to 12 only.”
No one embodied this combative journalist ethos more than Charles de Young, the co-founder of the San Francisco Chronicle. As the New York Times wrote in his obituary when he died at age 35, "He was ever on the alert to avoid his enemies. He never stepped into the street without a loaded revolver in his coat pocket, and he usually walked with his right hand grasping the stock."
When de Young criticized a politician, business executive, or rival journalist in the Chronicle, the spat often spilled into the streets. In one episode, he exchanged fire with a rival editor, then chased him to a police station on another day with a gun in hand, and later even went for his pistol inside a police station when he saw the man in police custody. The courts dropped all the charges against de Young; the sentiment seemed to be “them Duke boys are at it again!”
Another time, Charles de Young demanded that a San Francisco mayoral candidate drop out of the race. When he refused, de Young published an article about the man’s embarrassing past, and the mayoral candidate threatened to do the same. So de Young showed up at a campaign event in his car and shot the candidate twice, nearly killing him. De Young was out on bail the next day, and seems to have never seen a jail cell for shooting the man who became mayor.
A year later, the mayor’s son arrived at the Chronicle office and killed Charles de Young.
To the men of the jury who declined to pass judgment on Adolph Spreckels for killing Mike de Young, the shooting probably looked more like the squabbles of the rich and powerful than a murder—more like the Peter Thiel and Nick Denton feud than a crime.
Why would you anger San Francisco’s most powerful family over something that happened all the time?
The Sugar Daddy
After Adolph Spreckels evaded criminal charges for shooting Mike de Young, their feud transformed from a gun-fuelled conflict between a journalist and a monopolist to a battle for prestige between the social elite and a brash newcomer.
That brash newcomer was Alma de Bretteville, who scandalized the city when she married Adolph Spreckels. Alma de Bretteville had been born poor, but she was determined to marry up. She told people that she had “a great destiny to fulfill,” and she liked to repeat the proverb, “I'd rather be an old man's darling than a young man's slave.”
Alma de Bretteville was six feet tall and beautiful, and she achieved local fame after posing nude for artists and taking a gold miner to court for refusing to marry her. (He claimed the two diamond rings he bought her were just pretty gifts.)
When de Bretteville met Spreckels, she was 22 and modelling for a statue, and he was 46 and helping to fund the statue. According to biographer Bernice Scharlach, their first date likely took place on the third floor of The Poodle Dog, a restaurant with a hidden, back elevator and a passageway to a hotel.
The Goddess of Victory monument modelled after Alma de Bretteville in San Francisco. Photo credit: Carnaval.com Studios
Adolph kept many secrets from Alma, the chief example being his chronic syphilis, a condition that Alma did not learn about until her doctor left her side—while she delivered her third child—in order to treat Adolph’s syphilis-induced seizures. (She was lucky he did not infect her and the children.)
But the fact that Adolph had shot Mike de Young was common knowledge. According to Scharlach, de Bretteville was family-focused and, viewing the shooting as a defense of family honor, lionized him for it. After a five-year, secret relationship, Adolph Spreckels married de Bretteville.
This may have made Spreckels the country’s first sugar daddy. Today, tour guides in San Francisco explain to visitors that Alma used the term to describe Adolph, who inherited his father’s sugar business.
The origins of idioms and pop culture terms are rarely clear, and “sugar daddy” is no exception. Alma’s biographer says that Adolph called Alma “pet,” but does not mention Alma calling her husband sugar daddy. Most accounts of the term’s origins also look to early 20th century New York, where the term appeared in a number of play scripts and music lyrics.
Either way, Adolph certainly played a sugar daddy role for Alma, who could finally achieve her upper crust dreams. She moved with Adolph into the city’s most opulent residence and travelled to Paris to buy art and meet artists and creative types.
But San Francisco high society snubbed her—excluding her from the country club attended by the city’s wealthiest wives and her children from the city’s best school.
Alma’s isolation can partly be explained by her refusal to be anything other than herself. She liked to swim naked in her indoor swimming pool, and she had servants deliver entire pitchers of martinis in the afternoon. Her drive for recognition could be gratingly garish—like the disruptive and unending construction project to expand her mansion, or the self-promotion contained in her fundraising efforts for charity—and she enjoyed shocking people. Her nickname was “Big Alma.”
Alma’s snubbing at the hands of San Francisco’s elite also came from another source: her family’s rivalry with the de Youngs. When Alma saw the de Young daughters at social events, she would loudly tell friends, “We haven’t been friends since my husband shot their father.”
Left out of the high circles in which she felt she belonged, Alma decided to buy her way in or create her own. She convinced Adolph to purchase art for the city of San Francisco and donate money for war relief, which helped win her friends—like the Queen of Romania and Parisian artists—who attended her parties.
In response to the de Young’s founding of the city’s first major museum, Alma decided to one up them. The result was the gorgeous Legion of Honor Museum, built on cliffs on the Pacific coast.
When Alma learned that another museum had a larger collection of Rodin sculptures than the Legion of Honor, she responded, “I’d hoped to beat out that shitty Musée Rodin in Paris. I guess I just wasn’t in time.” But she was still pleased that her philanthropy had established her as a “blessing to all humanity” and elite patron of the city.
More importantly, her elegant, European museum put the de Young to shame. As Alma’s biographer paraphrased her motivations as she assembled the Legion of Honor: “She’d show [the de Young’s] snooty daughters what a real museum should look like”
Thanks to Alma’s determination to live a big life, her and Adolph’s name can be found around San Francisco. And their rivalry with the de Young family produced the city’s two famed art museums.
Today, this is how these rich, squabbling folks are remembered. Not for their gunfights and monopolies and political schemes, but for the institutions they left behind: the Chronicle, the de Young Museum, Spreckels Lake in Golden Gate Park, and the Legion of Honor.
Rodin's "The Thinker" at the entrance to the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. Photo by Andreas Praefcke
Like John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and countless other wealthy individuals, they invested their fortune shrewdly: donating money to visible causes so that generations later, the halo of that philanthropy would outshine the misdeeds or complicated realities of their lives.
If you keep an eye on the philanthropy sector, you can see which wealthy and controversial individuals are following the same playbook as America’s first sugar daddy and would-be assassin.
It will be interesting to see which of today’s villains turn into tomorrow’s generous benefactors.
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Um post mais para guardar. Pra mim. Que vou realizar um sonho. De ver ao vivo os jogos olímpicos. Das coisas dos jogos que eu mais gosto: atletismo, ginástica e vôlei feminino. Planejei cuidadosamente o que ia assistir. Escolhi alguns esportes por curiosidade (tipo remo). O resto eu sabia tudo. Comprei na primeira leva. Aquela do sorteio e tal. Não consegui ginástica. O resto planejei assim:
– Atletismo salto com vara para mulheres. Isinbayeva é uma das grandes personalidades esportivas do meu tempo. Tenho um crush violento nela. Mito. De quebra tem a Fabiana Murer, chance de Brasil no pódio. Duplo fuén.
– Vôlei feminino bronze. Essa geração maravilhosa envelheceu. Algumas já se aposentaram. Outras estão se despedindo. Nenhuma novata é uau. Acho que não vai ter ouro. Uma prata ou um bronze. Apostei que vinha bronze. Nem preciso falar o que aconteceu.
– Futebol feminino ouro. Chegou a vez, né? Coroação total de Marta e Cristiane. A seleção dos EUA deve estar meio envelhecida. Faremos uma final histórica. De quebra vejo a Hope Solo e aquela atacante incrível. Sou fã demais da seleção americana. Pelamor. Me sobraram as suecas retranqueiras. Vou passar o jogo todo de olho na técnica.
Enfim. Não faça planos. A gente põe e os deuses dispõem
During a visit to the Colt firearms factory in Connecticut in 1995, English sculptor Cornelia Parker was captivated by the recognizably gun-shaped casts of metal produced early in the manufacturing process. As blank casts they had none of the capacities of working weapons, but “in one further step, a hole drilled, a surface filed, they would technically become firearms.”
Fascinated by this transition, “I asked the foreman if I could possibly have a pair of guns at this early stage in the production, and if he could give them the same finish that they’d get at the end of the process,” she wrote later. “Amazingly, he agreed, and they became Embryo Firearms, conflating the idea of birth and death in the same object.”
Ironically, as she was leaving America, customs officials discovered the casts in her luggage and “an argument ensued that perfectly reflected the questions raised by Parker’s work,” writes Jessica Morgan in Cornelia Parker (2000). “The American Customs department insisted that Embryo Guns were weapons, while the police department, in Parker’s defense, argued that they were harmless metal forms and Parker was released from questioning.”
If you were to ask a random American what he or she thinks about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), it’s safe to bet they wouldn’t have much to say. The European Union-United States trade deal, first floated in 2013, makes the news on a near-daily basis across the pond. However, whether because the US has been so opaque on the details of ongoing negotiations, or because many of the issues involved feel abstract from daily life, many Americans don’t even know what the TTIP is.
And yet, deep within the bowels of the treaty, there’s one clause that could have a profound effect on everyday American life — by making it illegal for US cheese makers to use common names rooted in regional European culinary traditions like feta, muenster, or parmesan. EU negotiators are serious enough about this that it’s had the US dairy world in a tizzy for two years, underscoring how attached our cheese culture is, both emotionally and financially, to its (often only name-deep) European heritage.
One clause [could make] it illegal for US cheese makers to use common names rooted in regional European culinary traditions like feta, muenster, or parmesan.
This provision is just the latest in a long crusade by traditional European cheese makers against the willy-nilly usage of their region’s dairy terms by foreigners. In the early 20th century, some European states blocked the importation of foreign products using their names, hoping to protect the integrity of their culinary heritage. Predictably, France was among the first to implement a cohesive system of cultural protections for their cheeses, limiting the use of the name Roquefort in 1925. But other nations like Greece, historically less litigiously finicky about their food, jumped on the boat as well. Starting in the 1930s, you couldn’t sell brined goat or sheep’s cheese under the name “feta” in Greece unless it was verifiably made in specific regions of that nation using exact ratios of sheep’s milk to goat’s milk.
In 1992, the EU picked up these precedents and codified a “Protected Designation of Origin” system to judge which names, tied to traditional regions and modes of production, ought to be protected throughout the Union. It was a move geared towards protecting the flavor integrity and economic viability of traditional products. To wit, after the EU embraced Greece’s claim that feta was a distinct regional product in 2005, other European feta makers weren’t just barred from selling their products in Greece. They also could no longer call their cheeses feta in total — to the chagrin of British, Danish, and German producers who’d long dominated the EU market with cow’s milk feta and to the benefit of poor cheese makers in the rural Greek mountains.
Since then, the EU has slapped these protections onto about 180 cheeses, including Asiagos, Bries, Camemberts, Gorgonzolas, Goudas, Gruyeres, Manchegos, and Provolones. EU officials have been so pleased with the benefits of these cultural protections, building the exclusivity and thus brand strength and profitability of cheeses on the continent, that they’ve sought to extend them across the world via trade treaties, including one finalized between the EU and Canada in the summer of 2014, which is currently just awaiting implementation.
In early 2014, American cheese makers realized Europe’s push to extend the frontiers of their cultural protection regime included the TTIP and freaked out. According to Massimo Vittori, managing director of the Geneva-based pro-cultural protection group oriGIn, at least 70 cheese names that most Americans consider generic conflict with European restrictions. American cheese makers, from industry powerhouses like Kraft-Heinz to Midwestern craft producers, say they’ve spent decades and gobs of cash developing brands built on these generic names — just think about every tube of grated white stuff in the refrigerated aisle of your grocery store you associate with parmesan or every deli slice you associate with muenster.
At least 70 cheese names that most Americans consider generic conflict with European restrictions.
Some claim American producers and marketers actually built the international reputation of and demand for European-heritage cheeses that EU producers now want to leverage through cultural protections. They fear that, if they’re forced to start calling their products brined cow’s milk cheese instead of feta or parmesan-style hard cheese instead of parmesan, they’ll lose global market recognition—they’ll seem cut-rate. No one I spoke to in the US cheese industry could put a figure on it, but they all suspect this would take a fair chunk out of the multi-billion dollar industry, jeopardizing the well-being of many dairy farmers and manufacturers at home for the benefit of small pockets of farmers and producers abroad.
Naturally, a bipartisan group of 55 senators attempted to protest the provision — because cheese is perhaps the one thing that can unite this nation, even today. And the US has officially pushed back, arguing that EU producers can just file trademark applications for protection in the US. Just like under the EU’s system, this would prevent people other than the trademark holders or licensed users from labeling their cheese with specific names in America. However we don’t issue trademarks for names we consider too generic, like parmesan, which Americans have long used as a general term for a hard white cheese.
Shawna Morris, who handles trade policy for the National Milk Producers Federation and US Dairy Export Council, points out that a number of European cheeses included on the list for protection, like Roquefort or Parmigiano-Reggiano already have trademarks. But for Europeans that’s not enough; the trademark for Parmigiano-Reggiano doesn’t extend to parmesan, which to them is a synonym, not a generic genus term.
“If the [European negotiators] spent as much time and effort helping [producers] simply register their names through the existing system as they have in trying to impose new restrictions in the US market,” Morris said, “their goal of greater protection for EU terms would have already been achieved. It’s a shame, really, because [they] continue to adamantly refuse to acknowledge that it is actually US producers who face genuine trade barriers in this context. It’s US companies that cannot sell asiago or feta to the EU and increasingly to a number of other global markets, directly as a result of inappropriately broad EU… policies.”
Despite staunch pushback and accusations that the EU’s bid goes beyond protecting its farmers and moves into an overreaching protectionist assault on American dairy, the EU has stood strong; 201 of Europe’s over 1,300 cultural food protections show up in papers from TTIP negotiations this spring, 78 of which are cheeses. Just last month, an event hosted by the EU included a session on the importance of global recognition of these protections for the security of regional agriculture within the bloc, which used cheese as a key example.
It’s a stubborn position born of a firm conviction that generic American cheeses, no matter how long they’ve used the terms or how many dollars they’ve sunk into branding, are clearly just piggybacking on the haute reputation of their classier European kin. That’s not always the case — as Morris points out, some American cheeses have won international awards going head to head with EU-made counterparts — like BelGioioso Parmesan, which took first in class in global competitions in 1986, 2010, and 2012. But Europeans do have a point that many American parmesans taste nothing like their continental equivalents, because they use ingredients Italians would consider unholy—like cellulose powder and potassium sorbate—and then market themselves using Italian imagery or oblique references to the quality and story of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
The same could be said of American fetas, which may be part of our heritage through southern European immigration, but which cannot truly mimic traditional tastes due to federal regulations on US cheese production and the usage of non-traditional materials like cow’s milk instead of sheep’s and goat’s milk in many offerings. Even if we popularized the terms and sometimes do credit to their heritage, that doesn’t mean we don’t also often irresponsibly capitalize on and detrimentally bastardize that heritage.
Many on the European side have tried to convince the US industry that the TTIP is an opportunity to build strong local brands, which could be more profitable in the end. OriGIn’s Vittori points out that a similar deal in Australia killed its dependence on “generic” wine names rooted in European heritage, like Chablis or Champagne, which folks in the know realize are tied to specific regions in France, but which many firms in Australia at the time (and in America now) used to up their class factor and sales. In the aftermath, Australian vintners created wildly successful narratives of local wine region-brands like Barossa Valley or Margaret River. Vittori thinks there are at least 500 products that the US could create culturally distinct and protected titles for, including many cheeses, giving a massive boost to local producers offsetting any damage the recognition of European protections might do.
“From the marketing perspective,” he told me, “more and more consumers are looking for authenticity…leveraging specific characteristics of place.” Already, producers of US cheeses like Grayson, Hooligan, and Humboldt Fog have drawn on their location or unique processes and ingredients to establish popular and profitable American brands.
Vittori hasn’t, he admitted, found much traction with this narrative. “We have a good dialogue,” he said, “but as far as I understand, the [US] position remains quite skeptical.” That’s mainly because local cheese makers can easily point to the pain their European counterparts say forced name changes caused them, or the trouble Kraft-Heinz faced when, in 2008, it was finally forced to rename its parmesan “pamesello” in the EU, as proof that these restrictions are just painful trade barriers designed as political tools to hurt viable and large-scale American producers.
“local cheese makers can easily point to the pain their European counterparts say forced name changes caused them”
US producers seem to be so convinced that this potential forced name change is a fundamental injustice, violating the values of free trade and fair usage, that no one I talked to was aware of any efforts to come up with contingency plans for rebranding or repositioning. Instead, explained Doug DiMento of the Northeast’s Cabot Creamery Cooperative, “we’re simply trying to fight.” The industry has formed an entire lobbying group, the Consortium for Common Food Names (whose media outreach Morris runs), to push back on European cultural protections in the TTIP.
Chances are the entire TTIP deal is not going to freeze over a debate on the rightful usage of the term parmesan. So, given how entrenched the US position is, it’s likely we’ll see some kind of compromise. Vittori has floated the idea of allowing the US to use names we consider generic under certain conditions, such as not associating our parmesan with Italian cultural symbols; maybe we could make hyphenated American-X cheeses, making it clear there are differences between traditional European cheeses and their fine American cousins. The details of those compromises would have to be hashed out by producers on both sides of the Atlantic, though.
In truth, it’d probably be good for US producers to move away from explicit callbacks to our European heritage, as a matter of pride in our local products, a move in the direction of US food trends that privilege a clear and local provenance, and a means of allowing consumers to better understand what they’re buying — something the US historically sucks at.
It’d probably be good for US producers to move away from explicit callbacks to our European heritage.
Renaming our cheeses, say, Oregon cow feta or something totally novel doesn’t seem so bad. But the fact that a multinational trade conflict has spun out of cheese name usage rights says something about the perceived value of an established brand — and the abject fear the prospect of a forced change can inspire. This obscure trade deal about which so few of us give a shit has the potential to make us more food-conscious consumers and benefit local brands and producers. It also has the potential to put a dent in the US dairy industry. Either way, it’s a conversation we’re going to have.