Tuesday Sep. 22, 2015

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Staying After

I grew up with horses and poems
when that was the time for that.
Then Ginsberg and Orlovsky
in the Fillmore West when
everybody was dancing. I sat
in the balcony with my legs
pushed through the railing,
watching Janis Joplin sing.
Women have houses now, and children.
I live alone in a kind of luxury.
I wake when I feel like it,
read what Rilke wrote to Tsvetaeva.
At night I watch the apartments
whose windows are still lit
after midnight. I fell in love.
I believed people. And even now
I love the yellow light shining
down on the dirty brick wall.

“Staying After” by Linda Gregg from In the Middle Distance. © Graywolf Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this day in 1888, the newly established National Geographic Society began producing the National Geographic magazine, a scientific journal with no photographs, for their 165 members. The small group of men had as their mission "the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge."

In spite of its global interests, National Geographic was rather a family affair when it started. Gardiner Greene Hubbard, an early investor in the first telephone company, was the first president of the Society; when he died, his son-in-law, Alexander Graham Bell, took over. Bell personally financed the expansion of the magazine, hiring Gilbert Grosvenor, the man who would soon become his son-in-law, as the editor-in-chief. Grosvenor eventually took over as the Society's president ... and then his son held the position ... and then his grandson.

Along the way, the magazine transformed from a dry, scholarly periodical with a dull brown cover to one renowned for its coveted maps and pioneering photography, and the Society grew from a small, elite group to one with millions of members, funding projects like Jane Goodall's studies of chimps and Jacques Cousteau's underwater exploration. All of which suggests, given the five consecutive generations of family members at its helm, that nepotism isn't always a bad thing.

On this day in 1692, eight citizens of the colony of Massachusetts were hanged for their supposed connections to witchcraft. Theirs were the last of the deaths caused by the Salem Witch Trials, preceded by 11 other hangings, plus five who died in prison, and one who was crushed to death for refusing to enter a plea.

A period that roughly spanned the spring and summer of 1692, the Salem Witch Trials started when two young girls began displaying bizarre behaviors — convulsing, shouting blasphemy, and generally acting like they were possessed. The girls were the daughter and niece of Samuel Parris, a minister relatively new to town but already divisive. He'd moved from Boston, where an account of young children who were supposedly "bewitched" by a laundress was published. Parris had insisted on a higher salary and certain perks as the village reverend, and insinuated in his sermons that those who opposed him were in cahoots with the Devil.

After the girls' behavior gained attention and was pronounced the result of an evil spell, several other girls in town began acting strangely too ... and began naming individuals in town as the cause. The town was whipped into a frenzy, and soon dozens of people — women, men, and children — were accused of and often jailed for practicing or supporting witchcraft. Many of the accusations seemed to fall along the lines of existing feuds, or were directed at people who were — because they were poor, not upstanding members of the church, or marginalized in some way — not likely to mount a convincing defense.

By the time the final eight people were hanged on September 22, word about the trials was spreading throughout the state. Within weeks the governor of Massachusetts declared "spectral evidence," or visions of a person's spirit doing evil when in fact their physical body was elsewhere, was inadmissible. Soon after, he barred any further arrests, disbanded the local court, and released many of the accused. It wasn't until the following spring that he finally pardoned those who remained in jail. A full decade passed before the trials of 1692 were officially declared illegal, another nine before the names of the accused were cleared from all wrongdoing and their heirs given a restitution, and 265 years before the state of Massachusetts apologized for the events of that most infamous witch hunt.

Today marks the autumnal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere, the first day of fall and the point in which the Sun is directly above the equator and the hours of day and night are nearly equal. In the Southern Hemisphere, today marks the vernal equinox, the first day of spring.

It was on this day in 1961 that Congress approved a bill to establish the Peace Corps, and President Kennedy signed it into law. Less than a year earlier, then-Senator Kennedy was in the middle of an exhausting campaign tour. On October 13th, Kennedy wrapped up his third debate against Nixon and flew from New York to Michigan. He delivered a campaign speech at the airport, and another at Eastern Michigan University. His stops took longer than expected, so he arrived at the University of Michigan late — at about 2 a.m. — where he was hoping to get some sleep before the next day's campaign stops. He had no intention of giving a speech there, but when he got out of his car, he found thousands of students who had waited up in the cold and drizzle to see him. He started his standard campaign speech, but changed his mind and began to improvise. He challenged the college students, asking how many of them would be willing to give up part of their careers to volunteer abroad on behalf of their country. The audience was so enthusiastic that they sent him a petition with the names of 1,000 students who were willing to do exactly that. He continued to campaign around this idea, and eventually received more than 25,000 letters in support of this "peace corps" of young Americans.

Kennedy took office in January, and a few days later commissioned a Peace Corps Task Force. By March, he had issued an executive order establishing the Peace Corps on a temporary basis.

Over the summer, Kennedy tried to convince Congress to adopt the Peace Corps permanently, but many members of Congress opposed the idea, especially Republicans. They didn't think taxpayers should have to pay for it, and one Republican senator called the Peace Corps a "utopian brainwash." But Republican representative Marguerite Stitt Church had traveled extensively in Africa, and she disagreed. She gave a speech and said: "Here is something which is aimed right, which is American, which is sacrificial — and which above all can somehow carry at the human level, to the people of the world, what they need to know; what it is to be free; what it is to have a next step and be able to take it; what it is to have something to look forward to, in an increase of human dignity and confidence." Her speech changed the opinion of many Republicans and the bill to establish the Peace Corps was passed on this day with wide bilateral support.


It was on this day in 1862 that President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring slaves in rebel states free as of January 1 the following year. The war was not going well, and the emancipation of the slaves was meant to build morale in the North. Lincoln waited for a Union victory before he announced it. The Union Army beat back the Confederates at Antietam, the bloodiest single day of the war. Five days later, on this day in 1862, Lincoln read the Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet. By the end of the war, more than 500,000 slaves had fled to freedom behind Northern lines. About 200,000 black soldiers and sailors, many of them former slaves, served in the armed forces. They helped the North win the war.

A few months before he died, Lincoln said, "[The Emancipation Proclamation] is the central act of my administration, and the greatest event of the 19th century."

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