Monday, March 28, 2011

She couldn't write like me

Writer Virginia Woolf died on this day in 1941.

"Life," she wrote, " arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle. It calls for gigantic courage and strength...and how can we generate this..?

"By thinking that other people are inferior to oneself."

Sunday, March 27, 2011

So close, yet so far

An acquaintance of mine died the other day. When I read his obituary, I called a friend to tell him. He said what people almost invariably say in these situations:

“But I just talked to him the other day.”

George Carlin does a riff on this eternal response, something like:

“Oh, really? Well, you dumb cluck (epithet altered), it didn’t help him any, did it? He still died, even though you talked to him. As a matter of fact, your talking to him might even have hastened his demise…”

Here’s my take on it:

We all say this because we’re shaken and stunned to have been in the presence of imminent and brooding death. We think maybe we could have done something, said something…

We feel we ought to have been more respectful – to have paid more attention. If only we’d known this person was in the shadow of death…

Had we known, we would have regarded the about-to-die in a new light. We would have seized upon something to remember him by.

We would have stood in awe at implacable Death, or perhaps we might have been appalled by its importunity – its bad manners.

Yes, we do imagine, if we could have spoken the right word, the right phrase, we might even have warded off Death.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Triangle tragedy

On this day in 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory in New York City burned down, killing 145 workers. The tragedy led to the development of a series of laws and regulations that better protected the safety of factory workers.

This is from Today in History:

The Triangle factory, owned by Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, was located in the top three floors of the 10-story Asch Building in downtown Manhattan. It was a sweatshop in every sense of the word: a cramped space lined with work stations and packed with poor immigrant workers, mostly teenaged women who did not speak English. At the time of the fire, there were four elevators with access to the factory floors, but only one was fully operational and it could hold only 12 people at a time. There were two stairways down to the street, but one was locked from the outside to prevent theft by the workers and the other opened inward only. The fire escape, as all would come to see, was shoddily constructed, and could not support the weight of more than a few women at a time.

Blanck and Harris already had a suspicious history of factory fires. The Triangle factory was twice scorched in 1902, while their Diamond Waist Company factory burned twice, in 1907 and in 1910. It seems that Blanck and Harris deliberately torched their workplaces before business hours in order to collect on the large fire-insurance policies they purchased, a not uncommon practice in the early 20th century. While this was not the cause of the 1911 fire, it contributed to the tragedy, as Blanck and Harris refused to install sprinkler systems and take other safety measures in case they needed to burn down their shops again.

Added to this delinquency were Blanck and Harris' notorious anti-worker policies. Their employees were paid a mere $15 a week, despite working 12 hours a day, every day. When the International Ladies Garment Workers Union led a strike in 1909 demanding higher pay and shorter and more predictable hours, Blanck and Harris' company was one of the few manufacturers who resisted, hiring police as thugs to imprison the striking women, and paying off politicians to look the other way.

On March 25, a Saturday afternoon, there were 600 workers at the factory when a fire broke out in a rag bin on the eighth floor. The manager turned the fire hose on it, but the hose was rotted and its valve was rusted shut. Panic ensued as the workers fled to every exit. The elevator broke down after only four trips, and women began jumping down the shaft to their deaths. Those who fled down the wrong set of stairs were trapped inside and burned alive. Other women trapped on the eighth floor began jumping out the windows, which created a problem for the firefighters whose hoses were crushed by falling bodies. Also, the firefighters' ladders stretched only as high as the seventh floor, and their safety nets were not strong enough to catch the women, who were jumping three at a time.

Blanck and Harris were on the building's top floor with some workers when the fire broke out. They were able to escape by climbing onto the roof and hopping to an adjoining building.

The fire was out within half an hour, but not before 49 workers had been killed by the fire, and another 100 or so were piled up dead in the elevator shaft or on the sidewalk. The workers' union organized a march on April 5 to protest the conditions that led to the fire; it was attended by 80,000 people.

Though Blanck and Harris were put on trial for manslaughter, they managed to get off scot-free. Still, the massacre for which they were responsible did finally compel the city to enact reform. In addition to the Sullivan-Hoey Fire Prevention Law passed that October, the New York Democratic set took up the cause of the worker and became known as a reform party.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

I think, therefore am I?

Stephen Decatur, American naval hero of the War of 1812, died on this day in 1820, of wounds suffered in a duel.

His last words:

"I am mortally wounded...I think."

Friday, March 11, 2011

Pet funerals become big business

(From The Tennessean, Jan. 7, 2008)

At a facility tucked into a Carmel, Ind., shopping center, pet owners find urns to store their deceased animals' ashes and a chapel to say their last goodbyes. They're offered hugs and condolences and the chance to memorialize their pets by screen-printing their pictures onto plates or throws.

This place emerged from Coleen Ellis' vision of providing the high-quality after-care offered to humans for the furry creatures that, in many households, are like members of the family.

She opened Pet Angel Memorial Center in 2004, and the concept took off so successfully that it's on its way to being franchised nationwide, with hopes of expanding to 500 locations.

With the help of a few private-equity investors, Ellis recently closed on locations in Wichita, Kan., and Tampa, Fla.

This year, she hopes to expand with stores throughout the Indianapolis area. The corporate headquarters and training center will be in Carmel, Ind.

Ellis said that as the company grows, so will the concept of treating pet death with dignity.

"I think 10 or 15 years from now, when your pet dies, you'll call the pet funeral director," said Ellis, who previously worked in human funeral services. "We'll be the ones not only leading the charge, but setting the standard for your pet funeral home."

Saying goodbye
She said she was inspired to open the business by the death of her dog, Mico.

Until Ellis opened her operation, pet owners seeking that service had nowhere to go, according to the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association. About a dozen pet funeral homes nationwide have followed suit.

When Pet Angel opened its doors, it received about a call a week from pet owners. Now it has seen more than 3,000 clients and serves about 90 a month.

Almost all of the pet owners opt for cremations, at $230-$430, with additional fees for heavier animals, and come with keepsakes such as a mold of the pet's paw print and snippets of its fur. The business serves mainly cats and dogs but has seen rats, birds, goldfish, even chinchillas.

Some owners choose to bury their animals, and about 15 have had full-blown funerals.

"The whole process is about closure," said Ellis. "It's being able to say goodbye in a comfortable setting one more time."

Massachusetts-based entrepreneur Glenn Hanson decided to invest in Pet Angel about a year ago. He had been thinking of starting his own pet after-care franchise, but when he was introduced to Ellis' business model, he found it perfect for the niche.

"It's not hard to figure out that the pet industry is growing and the animals eventually do die," said Hanson, who owns a cocker spaniel-poodle mix named Oliver. "People like me will suffer heavily when the time comes for their loss. Anybody who satisfies the need of comforting the grieving parent will be successful."

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The postman was bringing him the latest Sherlock Holmes

Abolitionist and preacher Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, died on this day in 1887.

Beecher's oratical gifts and his free-thinking style made him "the most famous man in America." His popularity lasted throughout his life, surviving a sensational adultery trial in 1875 that ended in a hung jury, an acceptance of Darwinism, and even his eventual rejection of the divinity of Jesus.

His last words:

"Now comes the mystery."

Friday, March 4, 2011

He made a killing in business

Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, the head of Murder, Inc., was executed on this day at Sing Sing Prison in New York. Lepke was the leader of the country's largest crime syndicate throughout the 1930s and was making nearly $50 million a year from his various enterprises. His downfall came when several members of his notorious killing squad turned into witnesses for the government.

Lepke began his criminal career robbing pushcarts as a teenager. When he met Jacob "Gurrah" Shapiro while trying to rob the same pushcart, the two quickly became a formidable team. With Shapiro's brute strength, the two established an extortion business, forcing pushcart owners to pay for protection. Lepke and Shapiro then joined Jacob "Little Augie" Orgen's Lower East Side gang and turned their attention to bigger game.

One by one, Lepke and the gang terrorized the local garment workers unions. They took over control of the unions and forced kickback payments from both the members and the employers. Soon, they had taken over the entire New York garment industry. In the 1920s, they added liquor bootlegging and gambling and later began importing heroin and other narcotics.

Lepke assembled a large team of hired killers to enforce his control. At one time, this team may have included as many as 250 hit men. Lepke also began to coordinate operations with the other big crime kingpins around the nation. With Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Dutch Schultz, Lepke virtually controlled organized crime throughout the country. In 1935, Schultz wanted to kill New York District Attorney Thomas Dewey, but Lepke, fearing that it would bring even more intense scrutiny and pressure from law enforcement, had Schultz killed instead.

In order to generate more income and keep his hit men occupied, Lepke started Murder, Inc. in 1933. Murder, Inc. was authorized to kill anyone (approved by the syndicate) for a profit. With his hit squad protecting him from rivals and paid-off judges and officers keeping him out of jail, Lepke was America's premier criminal until he was betrayed by his own men. Reportedly, he was able to order final hits on his betrayers from jail before his execution

(From This Day In History at