This week in history: Tennessee Williams was born in 1911


Portrait of Williams. AP Photo

Tennessee Williams, who was born on March 26, 1911, was one of America’s most famous, most honored, and most controversial playwrights. Williams won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1947 for A Streetcar Named Desire and in 1955 for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Williams’s explosive, frequently violent dramas broke with the dramatic conventions of his day, transforming the American stage. The playwright brought a new level of sexual frankness and violence to American drama. He was sometimes accused of sensationalism in his depiction of psychological and physical violence, but his best dramas remain works of originality and power.

Williams was an emotional writer who filled his works with vivid, often painful autobiographical references to his early life, including his poor health as a child, his mentally ill sister, his neurotic mother, and the overbearing father who finally abandoned his family. Although most of his settings are realistic, Williams’s writing is poetic, and his plays often deal in symbols, sometimes taken from Greek mythology. He often portrayed eccentric outsiders and conflicts between illusion and reality. Some of his best plays portray characters, especially women, suffering from fear and loneliness. He also wrote about the greed and deception that can infect relationships, especially within a family.

Williams completed his first play in 1937 and wrote for the theater until his death in 1983, but his most successful plays appeared from 1944 to 1961. Other than his Pulitzer prizewinners, Williams’s major plays include The Glass Menagerie (1944); Summer and Smoke (1947); The Rose Tattoo (1951); Camino Real (1953); Orpheus Descending (1957); Suddenly Last Summer and Period of Adjustment, Williams’s only light comedy (both 1958); Sweet Bird of Youth (1959); and The Night of the Iguana (1961).

In addition to his plays, Williams wrote two novels, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1950) and Moise and the World of Reason (1975). His Memoirs was published in 1975. The autobiography provides an unsparing and revealing record of his love affairs with both men and women. Memoirs also describes Williams’s wanderings through the cities of America and Europe and his addiction to drugs and alcohol, which ultimately contributed to his death.

Williams’s short fiction appeared in five collections during his lifetime, notably Hard Candy (1954) and One Arm and Other Stories (1967). His poetry was published in In the Winter of Cities (1956) and Androgyne Mon Amour (1977). A collection of personal essays titled Where I Live appeared in 1978.

Williams’s plays inspired some of the most famous productions and performances in American stage and motion picture history. Several of his major plays were directed by the great American stage and film director Elia Kazan. Filmed adaptations of his plays featured such stars as Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, Paul Newman, and Elizabeth Taylor. Brando became an international star for his brilliant performance as the brutal and cynical Stanley Kowalski in the stage and movie versions of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Thomas Lanier Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi, and grew up in St Louis. In the late 1930’s, he adopted the nickname “Tennessee.” Williams died on Feb. 23, 1983.

This week in history: Wealthy American industrialist and railroad sleeping car builder George Pullman was born on March 3, 1831

Pullman is chiefly remembered for inventing the railroad sleeping car. However, he also built one of America’s first company towns, the town of Pullman, Illinois, where thousands of workers built the sleeping cars. The town later became part of Chicago’s Far South Side. Later still, the area was declared a Chicago landmark district and a national historic landmark. In 2015, United States President Barack Obama designated the Pullman Historic District as a national monument.

George Mortimer Pullman was born in Brocton, New York. He was the third of Lewis and Emily Pullman’s ten children. However, many of his siblings died in infancy. In 1845, Pullman quit school after the 4th grade and began working in a general store for $40 a month. In 1848, he moved to Albion, New York, where he became a building mover—moving buildings out of the way so the Erie Canal could be widened.

In the 1850’s, Pullman went to Chicago to help raise buildings to allow a new sewer system to be installed underneath. The system was also meant to help control flooding in the area, which had once been a marsh. In some instances, entire city blocks had to be elevated about 6 to 10 feet on massive beams and jacks. Pullman’s elevation work was done so smoothly that he was called a hero and a genius.

Pullman soon moved on to his next venture—the one that would make him a fortune as well as nationally famous: the luxury railroad sleeping car business. In 1858, Pullman and a business partner built the first two sleeping cars. Then he began creating bigger and more elaborate cars that could be converted from day to night use, with sleeping berths separated by curtains.

In 1867, Pullman organized the Pullman Palace Car Company (later shortened to the Pullman Company) to build his sleeping cars. He soon operated sleeping cars on all major railroads. Pullman introduced elegant dining cars with their own kitchens, beautiful parlor cars with individual reserved seats, and hotel cars with an attached kitchen and dining car. He also introduced enclosed vestibules for direct connection between cars. The Pullman cars offered first-rate service using newly freed house slaves as chambermaids, entertainers, porters, and waiters. After one of his sleeping cars was included in President Lincoln’s funeral train in 1865, Pullman’s business grew rapidly.

In 1880, Pullman built a new manufacturing plant south of Chicago, near Lake Calumet. He also built a town next to it and required his workers to live in it. The town, which Pullman named after himself, featured hundreds of brick homes, a bank, a church, a hotel, a library, offices, a post office, a restaurant, a school, a theater, and numerous shops. At its peak, some 20,000 people lived, shopped, and worked in Pullman. Pullman ruled over the town with a heavy hand.

In 1894, in the midst of a depression, Pullman drastically cut jobs, wages, and working hours. But he refused to lower the rents or the cost of food in his town. Criticisms mounted and soon erupted into a violent strike by rail workers that left hundreds of railroad cars burned and a number of people dead and others injured. The bitter labor dispute also caused a nationwide blockade of railroad traffic as rail workers refused to handle any trains that included a Pullman car. Eventually, federal troops were sent in to break the strike and get the trains moving again. Pullman was forced to give up ownership of his town, and it was annexed to Chicago.

Pullman was a bitter and hated man when he died from a heart attack on Oct. 19, 1897. He was 66 years old. He was buried at Graceland Cemetery on Chicago’s North Side. Pullman feared angry employees would dig up his body or steal it and hold it for ransom. So he made arrangements to be buried in a lead-lined coffin sealed in a concrete block and placed in an eight-foot-deep grave with 18-inch thick reinforced concrete walls. Eight steel rails, bolted together, were placed above the casket, which was then sealed in tarpaper and asphalt. The grave was covered with a final layer of concrete. Today, the towering Corinthian column above Pullman’s grave remains one of the most elaborate grave monuments at Graceland.

This Week In History: “Buffalo Bill” Cody was born on Feb. 26, 1846

William F. Cody was a child of the frontier. Born in Iowa, he moved with his family to the new territory of Kansas when he was 8 years old. He was only 11 when his father died. Young Cody went to work as a messenger and wagon driver for a freight company. As a teenager, he enlisted in the Union cavalry during the American Civil War (1861-1865). After the war, he hunted buffalo to supply meat for railroad workers, earning the nickname “Buffalo Bill.” Cody also served as a scout for the U.S. army and as a guide for hunters who came to the prairies from out East and from Europe.

Over the years, Cody sat around many campfires listening to stories. Frontier folk in the 1800’s considered storytelling an art. You started with the truth, and then you stretched it a bit. Then you stretched it some more. Eventually, your listeners figured out they were being had. But if you were a good storyteller, they were never quite sure where the truth ended and the stretching began. That was part of the fun.

Cody’s own life became a story after he met the author Ned Buntline. In 1869, Buntline’s dime novel Buffalo Bill, King of the Border Men contained more fiction than fact, but it was a hit. More Buffalo Bill novels and even Buffalo Bill theatrical plays soon followed. In 1872, Cody was asked to portray himself in a play called The Scouts of the Plains. He became a wintertime actor and a summertime scout.

In the early 1880’s, Cody developed a show called “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.” Staged in huge outdoor stadiums, it featured roping and shooting exhibitions, a “genuine buffalo hunt,” and a (pretend) Indian attack on the (genuine) Deadwood stagecoach. By the time the show traveled to London in 1887, it included nearly 200 performers, almost 200 horses, 16 buffaloes, deer, elk, and even bears.

Some 2 million people attended “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” during its months-long London run. Of course, they knew that the Indian attacks were staged and that a real buffalo stampede would have more than 16 buffaloes. Still, where else would they see even one stampeding buffalo? The performers were not stage actors. They were American Indians, American cowboys, and Mexican vaqueros (cowboys) who had actually lived on the Great Plains. The daring riding, the fancy rope tricks, and especially the incredible shooting skills of star Annie Oakley were very real. Visitors could even walk over to a nearby tent city and hear personal tales of the American West.

So exactly how much of “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” was the “real West” and how much was stretched? Well, nobody was quite sure. That was part of the fun.

This Week In History: American battleship Maine exploded in the harbor at Havana, Cuba, on Feb. 15, 1898

The USS Maine, a battleship of what is now known as the “pre-dreadnought class,” was commissioned in 1895—a few months after Cuban revolutionaries, inspired by the exiled writer José Martí, launched a series of uprisings against Spanish rule. In January 1898, the Maine steamed into the harbor of Havana, Cuba—only 100 miles (161 kilometers) south of Key West, Florida. Its purpose was to protect U.S. lives and property as conditions in Cuba deteriorated under martial law.

At about 9:40 on the night of Feb. 15, 1898, more than five tons of powder magazines ignited aboard the Maine as it lay at anchor in the harbor. The resulting explosion virtually obliterated the fore (front section) of the ship, killing some 260 of the ship’s crew. Only about 100 sailors survived.

The explosion shattered windows throughout Havana. The Maine burned and quickly began to sink. In the harbor, shock and chaos reigned for days. Divers searched the twisted wreck for survivors and for the cause of the explosion. Such searches proved to be mainly in vain.

News of the Maine shocked and outraged the American public. Many U.S. newspapers, specifically those owned by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, accused the Spanish government of sabotaging the vessel. On February 17, just two days after the incident, the front page of Hearst’s New York Journal blared the headline: “Destruction of the War Ship Maine Was the Work of an Enemy.” The paper offered a $50,000 reward for “the Detection of the Perpetrator of the Maine Outrage!” Though an official Navy investigation had barely gotten underway, the paper’s stories insisted that Navy officers were unanimous in blaming the Spanish for the explosion. Pulitzer’s New York World was a bit more cautious that day with its headline “Maine Explosion Caused By Bomb Or Torpedo?” It reported details of the ongoing investigation and stated that American officials were ready to act against Spain if the investigation determined the explosion was not an accident. Encyclopedia editors at the time noted that 1898 marked the 75th anniversary of the Monroe Doctrine, in which President James Monroe had warned the monarchs of Europe to avoid interfering with the nations of the Western Hemisphere.

Newspapers and such “war hawks” as Teddy Roosevelt—then assistant secretary of the Navy—began to urge the country toward war. The cry “Remember the Maine” became a call for war with Spain. The Spanish denied any involvement in the incident. They claimed that an explosion inside the ship caused the disaster. But a naval court of inquiry concluded that a submarine mine had caused the explosion. The administration of U.S. President William McKinley concluded that Spain should no longer control Cuba’s affairs. At first, McKinley tried to avoid war by offering to purchase Cuba through diplomatic channels. When Spain rejected this offer, McKinley moved toward war. The Congress of the United States approved a declaration of war against Spain on April 25, 1898.

American forces dominated the Spanish before an armistice was reached in August. Spain gave up its claim to Cuba in a treaty signed in December. The United States had entered the war proclaiming that its fight was for Cuban sovereignty, but its troops would occupy Cuba for four more years. In 1902, the island was granted its independence after its representatives were forced to accept the principles of the Platt Amendment, which gave the United States broad powers to intervene in Cuba’s affairs.

The recovered bodies of the sailors killed in the Maine explosion were initially buried in Havana. A year later, the bodies were disinterred and reburied in the United States. Most were laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. The USS Maine Mast Memorial at the cemetery contains the battleship’s main mast.

In 1910, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began a project to investigate and raise the Maine. The vessel was resunk about 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) off of Havana in March 1912.

In 1976, Admiral Hyman G. Rickover published a study of the Maine incident based on research by several U.S. Navy experts. The study concluded that the most likely cause of the explosion was that heat from an undetected fire in a coal bin exploded a nearby supply of ammunition. In the years following the Rickover report, an independent investigation claimed that evidence supported the theory that the ammunition was set off by an external mine. Other reports, however, reiterated support for the coal-bin theory. The mysteries of the Maine seem unlikely to ever be revealed.

This Week in History: Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman to earn a medical degree, was born in 1821.

The role of physician, as with many other careers, was once largely closed to women. But that situation changed with the success of pioneers such as Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman to earn a medical degree. Blackwell was born on Feb. 3, 1821, in Bristol, England, and came to New York with her family at the age of 11. Growing up, she first studied to become a teacher, at the time one of the limited career options considered suitable for women. Blackwell turned to medicine after talking to a friend who was dying. The friend suggested that the worst of her suffering would have been spared if her physician had been a woman.

A physician who was a family friend allowed Blackwell to study medicine with him for about a year. However, he cautioned her that although women were not explicitly barred from medical schools, no such institution would agree to a woman joining its ranks. Blackwell applied to all the medical schools in New York and Philadelphia and several others across the United States. In 1847, after dozens of rejections, Blackwell was finally accepted to medical school at Geneva College in New York, despite the reluctance of the school’s students and faculty. In 1849, she became the first woman to receive an M.D. degree from an American medical school.

Following her graduation, Blackwell traveled to Europe for practical training in hospitals there. When she returned to New York in 1851, she encountered much prejudice. Few patients came to see her, and hospitals barred her from their wards. Male doctors ignored her. Eventually, however, Blackwell earned the respect of the medical community and of the public.

In 1857, Elizabeth and her younger sister, Emily Blackwell, opened their own hospital in New York City. The hospital, called the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, was staffed entirely by women and primarily served the poor. The sisters later expanded the hospital to include a medical school for women. Elizabeth Blackwell returned to England in 1869, where she spent the rest of her life campaigning to open the medical profession to women.

In 1949, the American Medical Women’s Association established the Elizabeth Blackwell Medal to honor her achievements. The medal is awarded each year to the woman physician who has made the most outstanding contribution to the cause of women in medicine. Elizabeth Blackwell died on May 31, 1910.

This Week In History: Stonewall Jackson, Confederate Army general in the American Civil War, born in 1824

Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was a Confederate general of the American Civil War (1861-1865). Jackson earned his nickname at the First Battle of Bull Run (or First Battle of Manassas). After that battle, he became one of the best and most famous generals who fought under Robert E. Lee. During the Battle of Chancellorsville, Jackson was mortally wounded after his own soldiers accidentally shot him.

Thomas Jackson was born on Jan. 21, 1824, in Clarksburg, Virginia (now West Virginia). He was orphaned at an early age and raised by an uncle. Jackson received sketchy schooling, but he worked hard and secured an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy in 1842. Because of his inadequate schooling, he had to work several times harder than most cadets to absorb lessons. But his grades slowly climbed until he graduated in the upper third of his class.

Jackson served in the Mexican War (1846-1848), where he first met Robert E. Lee. After that war ended, Jackson served at various forts. In 1850, his company went to Florida to fight the Seminole Indians. Jackson left the army in 1851 and joined the faculty of the Virginia Military Institute at Lexington, where he taught until 1861. He was not popular as a teacher, and the students mocked his reportedly stern nature and eccentric traits.

Although he favored preservation of the Union, Jackson went with his state, Virginia, when it seceded. An unknown when the war started, he soon made a reputation in the First Battle of Bull Run. During the battle, Union soldiers initially forced the Confederates to retreat. However, Jackson positioned his newly arrived troops to meet the Union advance and helped secure a Confederate victory. Confederate General Barnard E. Bee, trying to rally his troops, saw Jackson’s line and shouted, “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall. Rally behind the Virginians!” From then on, Jackson was known as “Stonewall,” and his brigade as the Stonewall Brigade. Some historians actually believe Bee was criticizing Jackson for just standing in place like a “stone wall.” Bee never had a chance to explain his comment—he died in the battle.

In the Shenandoah Valley in 1862, Jackson earned international fame. With not more than 17,000 men, he defeated 60,000 Union troops in a series of lightning marches and brilliant battles. After the campaign ended in June, Jackson raced to the aid of Lee at Richmond. He fought in the Seven Days’ Battles, and at Cedar Mountain, the Second Battle of Bull Run, Antietam (Sharpsburg), and Fredericksburg.

Jackson fought his greatest battle in May 1863 at the Battle of Chancellorsville. On May 2, Lee divided his forces and sent Jackson on a long march around the Union army and toward its flank. That afternoon, Jackson’s troops rushed out of the woods and surprised the Union army. Jackson routed the Union troops, until darkness and a Union defensive line halted the attack.

That night, Jackson and some other Confederate officers rode ahead of the Confederate positions to scout for their next attack. Confederate pickets, who thought Union troops were attacking their position, fired on the officers as they returned to their lines. Two bullets hit Jackson, and his left arm had to be amputated. Lee, emphasizing the wounded general’s importance, stated: “He has lost his left arm; but I have lost my right arm.” Eight days later, Jackson died of pneumonia.

This Week In History: Sir John Alexander Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, was born in 1815


Sir John MacDonald, first prime minister of Canada after the Confederation, born, 1815. (January 11)

To what extent can one individual influence a nation’s political history? In the case of John Alexander Macdonald, quite a lot. Macdonald, known as “Canada’s Patriot Statesman” and as the father of modern-day Canada, was a driving force in forming and keeping intact a new nation. If Macdonald had not been born, what sort of creature would present-day Canada be? Would it even be a cohesive independent nation? Or would it comprise part of the United Kingdom, or perhaps of the United States? Former Canadian Senator Hugh Segal (b. 1950) said of Macdonald that without him, “we’d be a country that begins somewhere at the Manitoba-Ontario border that probably goes throughout the east. Newfoundland would be like Alaska and I think that would also go for Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C.” So who was Macdonald and what did he do that so affected the story of his fledgling nation?

Macdonald was born on Jan. 11, 1815, in Glasgow, Scotland. His family was not wealthy or politically prominent. John’s father, Hugh, moved his family to Upper Canada, a British colony in what is now Ontario, in 1820. John proved to be a bright student and finished his formal schooling at the age of 14. He went on to study law and was admitted to the bar of Upper Canada in 1836. Macdonald began his political career when he was elected as an alderman in Kingston in 1843. Kingston was the capital of the fairly new Province of Canada, formed from Upper Canada and Lower Canada (part of present-day Quebec) in 1841. In 1844, Macdonald easily won a seat as a Conservative in the province’s legislature. During the late 1850’s and early 1860’s, he served as co-premier of the Province of Canada. He became known for his ability to see beyond party lines and for his talent for building consensus. In 1864, Macdonald helped establish a coalition of three distinct political parties that agreed to cooperate and govern the Province of Canada together.

In the early 1860’s, the British provinces in North America were considering the idea of confederation. Factors that gave force to this idea included the instability of provincial governments, a desire to expand westward, and fear of U.S. expansion from the south. During a series of conferences from 1864 to 1866, representatives from New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and the Province of Canada met to discuss and form a plan for confederation. Macdonald was largely responsible for drafting this plan. Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island initially rejected the plan, but the other provinces joined together to form the Dominion of Canada in 1867. The Province of Canada became two provinces—Ontario and Quebec. The governor general of the new nation asked Macdonald to become its prime minister, and Queen Victoria knighted Macdonald.

Macdonald served as prime minister from 1867 to 1873 and from 1878 to 1891. He held the office for nearly 19 years and won six majority governments, more than any other prime minister. As prime minister, Macdonald worked tirelessly to expand and strengthen the new nation. His governments fought separatists, bought large areas of land to increase Canada’s area, put down rebellions against westward expansion, and built the Canada Pacific Railway to connect eastern and western Canada. British Columbia, Manitoba, and Prince Edward Island all joined the Dominion during Macdonald’s first administration. Macdonald later worked to protect Canada’s developing economy with the National Policy, which imposed high tariffs on American goods. In addition, his government established the North-West Mounted Police, a precursor to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, to protect and maintain order in western Canada.

Macdonald died on June 6, 1891, after suffering a stroke. He was 76 years old and had won his final election only three months earlier. Macdonald was buried in a simple grave in Kingston, Ontario. His second and only surviving son, Hugh John Macdonald, became premier of Manitoba in 1900. In 2002, Canada’s government established January 11 as Sir John A. Macdonald Day.