Monday, December 05, 2016

Revisionist history or nothing but the truth?

For my recent birthday, my cousin Barbara gave me a fun read: Wicked Pissed: New England’s Most Famous Feuds, by Ted Reinstein. Some of those feuds I was quite familiar with:

  • The Demoulas Market Basket squabble extraordinaire between cousins Artie S. (hiss, boo) vs. Artie T. (hip, hip, hurrah!).
  • The Boston Red Sox vs. the New York Yankees, which is really a proxy fight stemming from Boston’s inferiority complex. We’re smarter, we’re better educated, so – sputter, sputter – why isn’t the Hub of the Universe the Big Apple?
  • Whether or not the Battle of Bunker Hill should really be called the Battle of Breed’s Hill.
  • Whether the shot heard round the world was fired in Lexington or Concord. (Can’t take Ralph Waldo Emerson’s word for it.)

But others I was not aware of.

Most notably, I did not know that my hometown of Worcester may actually have been the site of the first battle of the Revolutionary War.

On September 6, 1774 – a full eight months before the fateful events in Concord and Lexington – by far the largest, most significant, full-scale rebellion against the British took place on Worcester’s Main Street. On that day, 4,662 militiamen from all over central Massachusetts converged on Worcester’s courthouse.

“This it the largest protest up until this time,” says James Moran of the American Antiquarian Society. “It’s most of the adult male population of Worcester County…convinced that their government, the Royal Parliament in London is trying to enslave them, and they aren’t going to take it anymore.”

The colonists surrounded the courthouse, forcibly turned out the stunned British magistrates inside, then barred the doors and shut the building down. In addition, the magistrates were forced to walk a gauntlet while publicly recanting their allegiance to their king.

Unfortunately (from the making history perspective) or fortunately (from the redcoat perspective), the colonists came in peace, unarmed, determined that their protest would be non-violent. Darn the luck. If someone’s blood had actually been spilled, Worcester would have been the Cradle of the American Revolution. We would have had the annual re-enactment. We would have had all the souvenir shops selling tri-corn hats and chocolate bars shaped like muskets.

But, nope, we had to be Midwest Massachusetts nice. And look where it got us. According to Reinstein’s book, Worcester’s role used to get a lot of play in 19th century histories of the Revolution. Lexington, Concord, and Paul Revere’s descendants – they were just a lot pushier than us nice-guy Worcester-ites.

Thus, I never heard of this bloodless battle.

Maybe the pubs (kids who went to public schools) knew about it. But we parochial schoolers were too busy studying the role of Catholics in American history – lots of attention given to Pere Marquette and Junipero Serra, who were really more important than George Washington. (Oddly, the gorgeous stained glass windows in the parish church I grew up in depicted Catholic involvement in US history. Rather than saints, we had John Barry, an Irish native, who was the Father of the U.S. Navy. Barry is the only person I can remember from those windows. Oh, Junipero Serra was probably there – he was, after all, a Catholic. Which was a good thing. Just not quite at the same level as being an Irish Catholic.)

Anyway, I never, ever, ever heard about Worcester’s almost key role in the American Revolution. Sheesh…

The other feud I had never heard of was Connecticut vs. North Carolina.

Why would these two disparate states be a-fussin’ and a feudin’?

Seems that it’s over that First in Flight motto on the North Carolina license plate.

As it turns out, there’s pretty strong evidence that Bridgeport, Connecticut, was actually first in flight. That was thanks to Gustave Whitehead (born Gustav Weisskopf, in Germany), who made “the world’s first manned, motorized, controlled, and sustained flight in a heavier-than-air machine.” This was on August 14, 1901, two years before Orville and Wilbur slipped the surly bonds of earth in Kitty Hawk, NC. (A hundred years later, on August 14, 2001, my mother died. She certainly would have gotten a kick out of knowing that a landsmann was the world’s first fly-boy.)

The Wright Bros. had a lot going for them that Gustave did not. For one thing, they weren’t immigrants, so there was a lot of interest in their being the first, and not some tired, poor, huddle mass-er yearning to breathe free and show up our native sons. Plus the Wright Bros. had a PR machine behind them, and knew enough to invite a lot of press out to Kitty Hawk. And their descendants were apparently savvy enough to attach a provision to their donation of the Wright Flyer to the Smithsonian. If the Smithsonian ever admitted that someone else beat the boys, the Wrights could take the plane back.

The things you learn when you pick up a book…


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