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Blog Archive 8
July 2010 to December 2010


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This page contains both original essays and comments on postcards as well as articles previously published in Metro News, the bi-monthly bulletin of the Metropolitan Postcard Club while I served as editor. Many of these reprinted articles have been enhanced on this website by adding additional content.

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Table of Contents

Current Blog Page
20. Mar 2017 - Aug 2017
19. Aug 2016 - Feb 2017
18. Aug 2015 - June 2016
17. Jan 2015 - June 2015
16. July 2014 - Dec 2014
15. Jan 2014 - June 2014
14. July 2013 - Dec 2013
13. Jan 2013 - June 2013
12. July 2012 - Dec 2012
11. Jan 2012 - June 2012
10. July 2011 - Dec 2011
9. Jan 2011 - June 2011
7. Jan 2010 - June 2010
6. July 2009 - Dec 2009
5. Jan 2009 - June 2009
4. July 2008 - Dec 2008
3. Jan 2008 - June 2008
2. July 2007 - Dec 2007
1. Aug 2006 - June 2007

To keep the blog page a reasonable length the articles found within will be archived approximately every six months. To access this content click the links on the left side of this page.


WARNING: Some of the content to be found in this section, including the archives deals with topics of a violent or sexual nature in both pictures and text, and is meant for a mature audience. If you feel you may be offended by such content you should leave this page now.


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December 21, 2010

REVIEW by Alan Petrulis

Beauty and the Beast
Human-Animal Relations as Revealed in Real Photo Postcards, 1905-1935


by Arnold Arluke and Robert Bogdan

Published by Syracuse University Press.

Book Cover

Countless illustrated postcards of cute little cats and dogs have been purchased by collectors ever since they were first introduced a century ago. They were largely designed to pull on simple emotional strings without the need for deeper engagement. The relationships between these cards and those who collect them have often been portrayed in terms of mindless bad taste that has reflected back upon postcard collecting as a whole. As with any stereotype this simply does not tell the real story. Man’s relationship with animals is deeper, more complex, and older than history itself. Animals have been integrated into our lives as our food, our enemies, and our beloved companions, and all this has been captured on postcards. One need look no further for proof than in this new release, Beauty and the Beast.

In many ways this book is as much about the relationships between man and pictures as it is about the relationships between humans and animals. Talk, as they say is cheap. We often describe ourselves and what we believe in ways that bare no true resemblance to our actions. While this can also be true of the images we create, there are a number of notable exceptions to be found within the realm of real photo postcards. During the early years of the 20th century technological advances in photography made it easy to use, and the act of taking picture began to pass from the hands of the professional to that of the amateur. While this trend has provided us with a great number of mediocre shots, there was also real significance in that photography was no longer being reserved for that special studio visit; it began capturing moments of everyday life previously deemed unworthy of recording and in numbers never seen before or since. Most of these images were produced in the cheapest and most popular fashion of their day, as real photo postcards. From this wealth the authors have gleaned over 350 outstanding images, which are now presented to us in this superbly printed volume.

Photographs have long been discounted by scholars as an unworthy historical resource due to their lack of context, but as the authors point out these real photo cards are often accompanied by more written descriptions than most other pictorial references. There are of course images that have become indecipherable over time, but to look at many of the illustrations in this book is to feel as if they were just taken yesterday. While attitudes are always in a constant state of flux we continue to remain human every day, just as animals are never more than what they are no matter how well we train them or dress them up. According to evolutionary psychology many of our current social habits can be attributed to our ancestor’s lives as hunters and gatherers. If basic human behavior has not changed that much over the past quarter million years, it is folly to believe that we cannot trust the emotions expressed in these pictures taken a hundred years ago. Too often the approach to writing such books is tempered with professional bias, often manifesting in the exclusion of competitive ideas, ever more dangerous in a world where we are all becoming specialists. In Beauty and the Beast, Arnold Arluke and Robert Bogdan have combined their in depth knowledge of anthropology, animal behavior, social science, and postcards to create something that is rarely seen. They have found an unapologetic way to mix scholarly writing with visual reference to create a rich story that each alone would be impoverished in telling. This book in which two worlds are seamlessly brought together is proof of this method’s efficacy.

The authors claim that this is not a scholarly work, but here they do themselves an injustice. It may not have the same depth as most scholarly treatises, but it covers its subject matter in such a comprehensive fashion that I would be hard pressed to find any reader who could not draw new perspectives from the material presented here. In its 11 chapters the book discusses animals in ways you might expect such as pets, workers, food, and game, but there are also more unusual relationships covered such as those of mascots, patients, symbols, and vermin. While familiar with all of all these relationships, there were countless details to be learned such as the ability of firehouse dogs to calm the horses that pulled early trucks toward infernos. I was also surprised to discover the extent of the dualism in these relationships from the formal military burials at sea of ship mascots to the brutal torture of animals inspired by wolf hysteria. The authors claim that our relationships with animals are much different today, largely due to our decreasing exposure to them. This is probably only a half truth for we have all the same conflicted feelings toward them today as we had a century ago, only in much different proportions.

Those looking for true historical or social insights should not be put off by the extensive illustration, nor should the postcard collector feel intimidated by the seriousness of the topic; Beauty and the Beast is an excellent survey written with clarity, and a perfect example of what is needed to help broaden our myopic view of the world and help us tackle the paradoxical human-animal issues we continue to face. While our inner nature may remain unchanged this book reminds us that the world we live in today is not the one that has always existed, nor does it have to be. This is an outstanding publication that surely everyone can relate to and will find of interest.

Beauty and the Beast sells for $39.95 and should be available at area bookstores and online. It is also available as an ebook:
www.syracuseuniversitypress.syr.edu



November 28, 2010

What Postcards Were Made For
By Alan Petrulis

When searching for postcards many collectors prefer those in mint condition free of bends, tears, missing corners, and writing. It is remarkable that any postcard comes down to us after a hundred years free of flaws and yet they do. Most cards however show some ware and we all develop personal caveats to what is acceptable for purchase. While I have turned down countless cards for my own collection due to condition I am probably more accepting than most. A beautiful signature scrolled across the sky can make a card for me while at other times the slightest smudge from a postmark can cause me to pass it by. To a great extent it is a matter of how a particular use has effected the image though use itself is not a cause for concern. Some collectors in fact will not buy any postcard unless it has been mailed, an act that fulfills its meaning.

Too often we forget that antique postcards were not designed with the modern collector in mind. Though often casually purchased for a quick message these mementos just as often were dear to someone’s heart. These cards were bought with someone specific in mind and were often an integral part of deeply personal relationships. They often sit in our albums today because they were dearly cherished by others for so many years. While we cannot form the same emotional attachment to them we should not forget that postcards are not just abstract remnants of history.

Real Photo Postcard

Sometimes I am amazed at the personal correspondence in my hands that were never meant for my eyes. Sometimes this alone makes a card worth owning. This simple one hundred and four year old cyanotype of a small nondescript schoolhouse passed through the hands of many potential buyers before winding up in mine. For me the simplicity honesty of image and message combine into something far greater, something I just could not pass up. It reads:

Dear Eugenia:-

I owe you a letter, but I think you will like a post card better, so I am sending this one of the school here at Hanover, where I began going to school. How are your Mama and the baby?

With love, Beulah

This message is far from earth shattering, its sentiments far from unique but it is truly genuine. This is what postcards were made for.



October 2, 2010

The War to End All Wars on Postcards
By Stephan Likosky

The First World War, the War to End All Wars, is a veritable treasure trove for the postcard collector. Tens of millions of cards were produced by both the participating nations and neutrals between 1914 and 1918. Postcards played an invaluable role in the conflict: they aroused a sense of patriotism, demonized the enemy in massive propaganda campaigns, documented the political events influencing the war, followed the course of battles, and as importantly, allowed those in uniform to maintain contact with family and friends back home.

Collectors could easily specialize in any number of war-related fields, such as propaganda cards, naval scenes and battleships, trench warfare, the home front, and men in uniform. Instead of attempting to portray any concise history of the War or any one specialized category, I have chosen to share an array of cards I have collected based on nothing more than what has aroused my curiosity or sense of aesthetic appeal. Eyewitness accounts are from Forgotten Voices of the Great War, by Max Arthur and the Imperial War Museum in London.

Shortly after war was declared in early August 1914, Germany invaded the neutral country of Belgium in its march toward France. News, some of it rumor, spread of massive war crimes committed by the Germans, including the bayoneting of babies, the pillaging of churches and the rape of women. People throughout the world were incensed, and as further actions such as the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915 and the execution of British nurse Edith Cavell became publicized, pressure was made to bear on the neutral nations, especially the United States, to enter the war. President Wilson and the majority of American people in 1914 were adamant in their distaste of becoming involved in Europe’s wars and it was not until April of 1917 that President Wilson declared war.

Postcard

On a postcard designed by artist Wallace Robinson, four of Europe’s major war participants are shown, symbolized by dogs (the English Bulldog, German Dachshund, French Bulldog and Russian Wolf-Hound), each wearing the military headgear of its respective country. At the center of the grouping, with no military head covering and draped in the American flag, an enlarged American Bull Terrier stares forward, tongue extended. The caption reads: I’m Neutral, BUT-Not Afraid of any of them. It’s a rather defensive stance, but reflective certainly of the mixed feelings about the war and divided loyalties of some of America’s citizens in the war’s early years.

Postcard

In Central Europe, meanwhile, little ambiguity surrounds the sentiment of a German card marked on the verso Der deutsche Kampf 1914 (The German Struggle 1914) and titled Unser Bund (Our Bond). Here, the German Kaiser and Emperor of Austria are united underneath the blessing of a winged Aryan knight in armor, compete with halo and sword and holding a scale representing justice.

Postcard

Enthusiasm for the war within Europe reached almost feverish pitch in the early days. Many were convinced that the conflict would be over in just a few months, and recruiting stations were mobbed. A German schoolboy recalls: “I shall never forget the day when they marched out to the trains. All the soldiers were decorated with flowers, there was no gun which did not show a flower. Even the horses I think were decorated. And of course all the people followed them. Bands playing, flags flying, a terrific sort of overwhelming conviction that Germany now would go into war and win it very quickly.” A German illustrated card depicts young women serving coffee to soldiers about to depart by train. It is all excitement and happy faces.

Postcard

Later, in the United States, enthusiasm at America’s entry into the war was equally documented on postcards. In New York’s Union Square, a simulated wooden battleship was installed to act as a recruiting station and in its two-year stay helped recruit more than 25,000 men into the navy. After the war, it was dismantled to be sent to Coney Island’s Lunar Park to serve a similar purpose.

Postcard

The use of postcards for propaganda purposes was ubiquitous and demonizing the enemy was a favorite motif. On a Belgian card entitled Human Shield, civilians, including half-naked women, are being driven forward by German troops to act as shields. One woman, who is on the ground perhaps in rescue of her baby, is being prodded by a bayonet.

Postcard

A French card from 1916 shows, in insert, a poilu, or French soldier, writing to his child. The illustration above portrays a German officer leading a small but reluctant girl away from a burning home where soldiers are shooting her family. The text purports to be excerpted from a letter sent by a French soldier to his child. In reads in part: What is a Boche? (derogatory term for German). You want to know, my child, what is this monster called a boche? . . . He is the devil as a soldier, who burns villages, guns down old people and women without remorse. . . He is the man, my child, who wants to kill your father, destroy the homeland and torture your mother.

Postcard

As derisory but with a bit of humor, five young German boys, two bare-bottomed, and called the airship division, aim their streams of urine toward the band of three, representing Russia, France, and England. To the left other Allied soldiers portrayed as monkey-like, flee the scene.

Postcard

World War I is often associated with the extensive use of trench warfare. Many postcards depict the trenches, with soldiers either actively shooting at the enemy or performing everyday activities such as shaving, playing cards, smoking, reading letters from back home or playing musical instruments. In reality, mud, often times high as the soldier’s waist, rats, infestations of lice, the stench of dead bodies, shell shock, and lack of vital supplies were more common features. On a German card titled Battle with Indians, soldiers repel an attack by British colonial troops. The use of African and Asian troops, especially by the British and French, was widespread, but a lesser known aspect of the war.

Postcard

Another German card, rather haunting with its ominous shadows, shows the celebration of Christmas in the trenches below a snow covered scene. A soldier plays the accordion while his companions sing around a lighted tree or stand guard. There were some Christmas celebrations, interestingly enough, where fighters on both sides of no man’s land joined together in song and drink in acts of mutual sympathy if not solidarity against the insanity of the war.

Postcard

World War 1 witnessed, as most wars in recent history, the development of new weaponry. Aircraft at the start of the war, for example, was used mostly for reconnaissance. Before long, however, fighter planes and bombers could be seen and heard roaming the skies overhead. Fighter aircraft were the most aggressive and played a defensive role; bombers took the war to the enemy’s territory, while zeppelins and balloons continued to be of great use in reconnaissance. In a highly dramatic scene on a French postcard, a fighter plane labeled The Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia) attacks a German zeppelin. The endangered pilot exclaims “If all three join up, it’s all over for me.” Below, British ships sail toward the continent (I’m hurrying!), a French poilu stands with rifle (I’m ready!), while to the right a Russian on horseback completes the picture (Me too!).

Postcard

Aviators (aces) were seen as the true heroes of the war, especially when land soldiers were more than likely trapped in trenches with less opportunities to prove their courage. On a 1915 French card, a pilot and his gunner position themselves for an air battle with the Germans. The machine gun for the first time in history became an indispensable addition to the arsenal.

Real Photo Postcard

A real photo card shows a downed German plane with its dead pilot and the words: THE FATE OF THE HUN who bombed hospitals.

Postcard

A humorous German card depicts three spike-helmeted soldiers taking cover under a cow at the approach of an enemy aircraft.

Postcard

Designs of tank-like vehicles date back to the 18th century. It was during the First World War however that they became powerful weapons of destruction. After being dismissed by British Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener as nothing more than “a pretty mechanical toy,” rapid design development was able to put them into battle by spring of 1916. A British Lieutenant remarks: “It was a complete surprise to the Germans that we had ever devised such a thing as a tank. They were so shattered when they first appeared on the Somme that all resistance in the German section where they were used collapsed.” A French postcard shows a German soldier kneeling helplessly before the onslaught of a gigantic tank breaking through barbed wire. As the battle rages all around, a French soldier woos his sweetheart inside. Written below in French is: For us poilus, this is happiness. But for the boches, it’s rather distressing. By war’s end the British and French had fielded more than 6,000 tanks, the Germans only 20.

Postcard

The French, contrary to popular opinion, were the first to use gas in the war. The Germans, however, must be credited with its rapid development into far more lethal forms. The first massive employment of poison gas took place at the second battle of Ypres in April, 1915. Each form of gas as it developed was harder to protect oneself against. Chlorine gas caused violent coughing and choking upon contact, phosgene gas had a delayed effect, while mustard gas, all but odorless, caused internal and external blistering. Countless personal accounts tell of soldiers having to stand by and helplessly watch their buddies choke to death as the poison took its toll. A British soldier at Ypres recounts: The men came tumbling from the front line. I’ve never seen men so terror-stricken, they were tearing at their throats and their eyes were glaring out. A bilingual (French-English) card shows a distraught Red Cross nurse and military officer overseeing two such deaths. Proceeds from its sale will go to aid war orphans.

Postcard

Lice were ubiquitous in the trenches. A British soldier relates: “I’ve seen men taking their shirts off with the skin of their backs absolutely raw where they’d been scratching. And there was no way of getting rid of them at all. . . You had very few chances of getting a good sleep anyway, and when you had the lice with you to irritate you, [it would] drive you into a sort of frenzy almost.” A German illustrated card shows a group of men showering at a delousing station. As an aside, the term cootie as a synonym for louse became popularized by the war. It’s origin is said to be a similar word sailors had picked up in Malaysia meaning dog flea.

Postcard

Over eight million soldiers were held prisoner during the First World War. Germany alone captured two and one half million, of which only five percent perished. In contrast, forty percent of prisoners held by the Russians either died in custody or were reported missing. A German card shows five prisoners of varied backgrounds being held at the Kleinwittenberg Prisoners of War Camp, located 59 miles southwest of Berlin and spanning over ten acres. At the top center is a French tirailleur Senegalais, or Senegalese rifleman, one of over 55,000 combatants from colonial Africa employed in the War.

Real Photo Postcard

A patriotic card glorifying France’s greatness depicts one such solider with the spiked helmet of a German atop his bayonet.

Postcard

Aside from being taken prisoner, another fate which befell many soldiers was succumbing to venereal disease. Large-scale campaigns to warn, educate and prepare soldiers who might come in contact with prostitutes was undertaken by all sides in the conflict. The French, forever pragmatic, licensed brothels to service the needs of soldiers and their officers, and many of their postcards treat the subject with humor. On a card labeled MARSEILLE. Rue Lantermery, near the old port, a photograph shows prostitutes and their soldier clients lined up on the cobblestone street. By war’s end over 400,000 cases of venereal disease among the various troops had been treated.

Postcard

The entry of America into the war brought new encouragement to the war-weary allied troops and helped boost their morale. The first contingents arrived at the French port of St. Nazarre on June 27, 1917. A mock cablegram in postcard form addressing the French soldiers and datelined New York, June 1918 reads in part: Admirable and courageous soldiers of France! Listen Up! Be Brave! We are arriving by the hundreds of thousands with new and powerful disinfectants to help you get rid of the boche parasites from the land of La Fayette. On the upper left are the memorable words: “They Shall Not Pass.

Postcard

Groups such as the YMCA, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the Knights of Columbus and the Jewish Welfare Board all went to work immediately to provide needed social services to the doughboys. A postcard announces the American Library Association’s opening of a new reading room for the use of the American Expeditionary Forces in Paris, and provides a map on the verso as to its location.

Postcard

When the war ended in November 1918, the YMCA’s Department for Reception of Returning Troops issued special postcards welcoming the troops and enabling them on the verso to notify their families of the date of their return and the military camp to which they would be heading.

Real Photo Postcard

Meanwhile, in New York’s Madison Square, a victory arch was erected in wood and plaster modeled after Constantine’s Arch in Rome. Attempts to make it permanent were not successful.

Postcard

An aspect of the War not often discussed today is the abridgment of German-Americans’ civil rights in the United States. Best remembered is the renaming of sauerkraut to liberty cabbage during the War. Far more serious actions, however, were taken. German-born male residents over the age of 14, of which there were over 250,000, were required to register. Over 2,000 German-Americans were incarcerated in camps in Utah and Georgia. Two were lynched and several tarred and feathered. Public burnings of German books took place in Ohio and Montana, teaching of German was halted in public schools, German repertoire was removed from the New York Metropolitan Opera’s performance schedule, place names were changed, and in some localities even the speaking of German became unlawful. An American card shows a doughboy with rifle pointing out a lamp post to a well-dressed German-American with the caption: American soldier to German-American: You see we have plenty of lamp posts for our German-American traitors.

Real PhotoPostcard

In the end, the First World War brought about unprecedented destruction and laid the foundations for a second world war. Total casualties were 37 million men, women and children. 6.8 million civilians were killed, and 21 million people wounded. A real photo postcard from the War shows a dead soldier lying in the field, his abandoned body already being ravaged by insects. The back of the card is blank; no date and no identifying remarks, which makes its message even more poignant. We’ve come a long way from the multitudes of postcards once glorifying the War to End All Wars.



August 30, 2010

Black Tom
By Alan Petrulis

By evening the July heat had generated a fierce rainstorm but it did not deter the crowds who had gathered on Baltimore’s waterfront. They had all come from near and far in hopes of catching a glimpse of the German U-boat that was expected to enter harbor. Every craft that could float seemed to be out on the water filled to capacity with the curious. News had broken out of its pending arrival shortly after being spotted by a Coast Guard cutter off Cape Henry that morning of the 9th. While the encounter with the cutter was unexpected, the meeting with the little tug Thomas F. Timmins, captained by Frederick Hinsch was not. It had been on patrol for more than two weeks tying to rendezvous with this sub that left from Helgoland, to guide her back to Baltimore. All aboard had been worried that the U-boat may have had a fatal encounter with the British blockade that was in full force by 1916.

Postcard

As the trio of ships finally entered Baltimore’s harbor the press discovered the U-boat’s name. She was the Deutschland, at 315 feet in length, the largest submarine the German’s ever built. Numerous questions were thrown out at Captain Koenig, standing atop the sub’s deck in his white cap but his answers remained as murky as the weather. After spending the night in quarantine at Fort McHenry the sub settled in at a very private docking facility at Locust Point that had been built just for her by the Eastern Forwarding Company. This fronting firm had been set up by Paul Hilken of the North German Lloyd Steamship Line, now an agent for Sektion P of the German Military Sabotage Department along with Hinsch, posing as a commercial attaché. They had not only overhauled the pier and the tug, they secretly purchased and stored tons of nickel, tin, rubber and other important materials necessary for the German war effort. Now these goods would be loaded onto the U-boat while unloading the precious cargo of chemical dyes that it brought from Germany. The British blockade, in place since war broke out in 1914 had stopped all commerce, or nearly so, making certain goods highly coveted on both sides of the Atlantic. It took three weeks to transfer all the cargo despite the rush to avoid further inquiry. German vessels were being interned in neutral America as regular policy but since the Deutschland was completely unarmed officials saw no rush to intervene.

Postcard

On the 1st of August the Deutschland evaded U.S. Naval ships, darting out of the Chesapeake bound for Germany. Three days earlier the elusive Captain Koenig had finally met with the press. When asked if Germans felt anger toward the United States for selling arms and munitions only to their enemy Britain and France while declaring neutrality he replied, no, that all Germans understood that Americans would also sell them arms if they could. This was a lie.

Postcard

In the early hours of July 30th, just before the Deutschland made it out to sea the phones at police stations all over Maryland began to frantically ring. People were experiencing strange earthquake like rumblings in their homes and wanted answers, only no one in charge had a clue. Over a hundred miles to the northeast many residents of New York City were just as confused only they were panicked as well. A shock wave had past over the Battery where the shattered roof of the Aquarium caved in and as it hit the Whitehall building, home of North German Lloyd it ripped into the facade blowing out all its windows and interior doors from their hinges. Breaking through the other side the wave raced up the city’s long avenues leaving trails of broken glass behind. At Times Square the blast broke a major water main and darkened the Great White Way before continuing its destructive trek uptown. Police and fire companies were responding to false alarms all over not knowing the true source of the chaos. As things began to settle all eyes started turning toward the harbor where the dark night sky began taking on an eerie orange glow and from where the sounds of a great battle began to emanate.

USGS Map

An alarm had been pulled on the Black Tom pier but when the Jersey City Fire Department arrived at the scene they found that there was no water pressure in the hydrants. They did their best to draw water from the bay but Black Tom was not a place that even the bravest man would want to fight a fire. By the start of the First World War this crooked little island, once said to have resembled the outline of an arched tom cat, had become a giant pier for the Leigh Valley Railroad extending a mile out from the Jersey shore just south of Communipaw. This facility was filled with over 200 railroad cars, 24 giant warehouses, and bristling with barge landings, now all holding two million tons of munitions bound for the Allies in Europe. Just after two in the morning as fire ignited on the barge Johnson 17 the fifty tons of dynamite it was holding exploded all at once blowing firemen out of their shoes and causing extensive damage to buildings all over Jersey City. This was only the beginning. A half hour later another great explosion spread the fire to most of the facility and artillery shells began to detonate. Bullets and shrapnel were now flying everywhere piercing the nearby Statue of Liberty and endangering everyone within reach. The immigrant station on Ellis Island was ripped from its foundation and all had to be quickly evacuated under a terrifying rain of burning cinders. Firefighters on land were forced further back as fireboats sped in from across the harbor, but fighting this blaze by land or sea would be a monumental task. By morning the fire had burnt itself out but danger remained from the countless unexploded shells sitting in hot ash.

Postcard

Streets twenty five miles away were filled with broken glass; every building facing the harbor was damaged. It would be difficult to believe that there was anyone in the entire metropolitan area that was not touched in some way. Miraculously few deaths were reported, though no one noted the explosions effect on the large squatter community living on stilts and in houseboats along the nearby marshes. With all the photographers and publishers in the area it is very surprising that so few postcards were made to record this event. Things were different down in Baltimore. Captain Koenig had been given a tremendous welcome and the arrival of the Deutschland had inspired a whole series of cards to be published, especially by the pro German magazine, The Fatherland. Postcards would also be printed in Germany glorifying the U-boat’s entire epic voyage. Why were the amounts of cards produced of these two events so disparate in relation to their significance? The Fatherland was not just one of the typical foreign language magazine that proliferated in these years, it was heavily subsidized in secret by the German government, to make sure it did all it could to promote an arms embargo. President Wilson was also doing his best to downplay stories of espionage erupting in the news for he did not want to be rushed into war. A larger part of the problem may lie in tracing the cause of the Black Tom disaster. Early newspaper reports blamed it on a collision between two ammunition trains. A persistent rumor started that smudge pots lit by guards to drive off the incessant mosquitoes burnt out of control. Only the owners of the railroad were arrested for criminal negligence due to Black Tom being overcrowded with more explosives than regulations allowed. No one knew for sure what had happened, except for the three German agents that blew it up.

Real Photo Postcard

Capitalist enterprise in the United States may very well have been willing to arm all sides in the Great War but the tight British blockade made supplying the Central Powers an impossibility. This one sided arrangement of only supplying the Allied forces while President Wilson claimed complete neutrality seemed a farce to many in Germany and they did all that they could do to stop it. Captain Franz Rintelen von Kleist arrived in the United States in March of 1915 posing as a Swiss national, but his plan of buying out munitions from under the Allies did not prove to be practical. Destroying them would be the next best thing. New York had 27 German vessels interned in its harbor and some of these were well equipped warships that American had no right to inspect under international law since they were considered foreign territory. These ships now became the perfect location for secret workshops that would begin the production of bombs. One of the most innocuous was about the same size and shape as a cigar, later reduced to a glass pencil. One side carried a flammable mixture and the other acid that would eat away at the copper plug that divided them. The varying thickness of the copper worked as a rudimentary timer; and when the two sides finally mixed flames would shoot out of both ends of the cylinder. They were easily placed in cargo bound for Europe by the seemingly endless source of interred German sailors hanging out at the docks or by Irish laborers wishing to sabotage the British cause. Once out at sea a fire could ignite munitions in a hold and the ship would simply disappear without a trace. Von Rintelen had Frederick Hinsch set up a network for their dispersal.

Postcard

Michael Kristoff, a disgruntled Slovakian had accompanied Hinsch as he traveled across America secretly planting bombs. Hinsch had since set him up with a job at the Eagle Iron Works just down the road from Black Tom where it was not only convenient for him to carefully study the pier but where the sight of arms trafficking would fester inside him. While it is difficult to separate the carelessness of war profiteers from sabotage at least a hundred American ships and factories had mysterious explosions or fires that halted arms production over the past year; yet while Americans grew suspicious they remained complacent. While three quarters of all munitions shipments passed through Black Tom there was no fence to keep anyone out and only five guards of which two were on the take from German agents. Kristoff walked right in the night of July 29th as hid did many nights before only this time instead of taking notes he was carrying dynamite. Kurt Jahnke and Lothar Witzke soon arrived by rowboat with more explosives. As the police had many of the local interned Germans under close watch, Kristoff had recruited these two from San Francisco to avoid suspicion. Witzke had been a Lieutenant aboard the ill fated Dresden when his ship was sunk by the British off the Chilean coast. He eventually hooked up with the ambitious German agent Jahnke in California on his long odyssey that eventually led him to New York. All three already knew where to go and what to do. They would leave as they arrived.

Postcard

Kristoff suddenly flush with the $500 Hinsch had paid him became a suspect by September, but there was no real evidence to hold him on. Jahnke and Witzke were safely in Mexico hatching new plots when war was declared. The Deutschland would return to America once more on November 1st, this time to Connecticut but only a few postcards were made to note the visit. Those that were carry the same pictures from Baltimore with New London printed over them. With the United States poised to enter the Great War anti-German fever was at a high pitch and publishing pro-German postcards had quickly become a dangerous activity. Soon it would be an illegal one. The Fatherland magazine even changed its name to The American Weekly. Americans were not in the mood to see pictures of destruction at home, and material shortages now made the printing of questionable postcards a risky financial proposition. Following the war there was even less appetite for such imagery and extraordinary events like the explosion at Black Tom were brushed aside and quickly forgotten, at least by most.

Postcard

Black Tom was not the first act of sabotage in the United States though it was the most ambitious. It finally prompted many companies to heighten security but at the Canadian Car and Foundry Company sitting in the Jersey meadows at Kingsland a German agent working for Hinsch had already been placed inside. On the 11th of January 1917, less than six months after Black Tom there was a mysterious fire that ignited a half million artillery shells. The following morning only the stub of the factory’s giant smokestack stood out from the surrounding marsh.

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Once the Great War was over both the United States and the new Weimar Republic were anxious to put the issue of war reparations behind them as normal relations would lead to stronger ties and greater trade. Nearly all settlements were quickly decided upon by the bilateral Mixed Claims Commission except for those put forward by the Leigh Valley Railroad and the owners of the Kingsland factory. These were not only the largest claims; they could also seriously damage Germany’s reputation so any involvement was denied. Paper shuffling and legal arguing would go on for years. It wasn’t until 1930 that the first determination was made and it was in Germany’s favor. With evidence in dispute the Commission just could not bring themselves to believe that another nation would act so boldly against a neutral country. More evidence brought on motions to reopen the case but the outcome remained the same. The dynamics of the plot however were slowly unraveling, leading to the reopening the supposedly finalized case once again. Whether it was the new evidence presented or the growing distain for a Germany now led by Adolph Hitler, the Commission finally found in favor of the Americans in June of 1939. Less than three months later Hitler’s armies crossed into Poland and the victory in court seemed moot.

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Legal arguments would continue in the post war years and controversy still surrounds the guilt of the original three accused. Just prior to the Great War, Irish Republicans had forged strong ties with the Ghadar Party in the United States who were planning to violently overthrow British rule in India. As soon as war broke out in Europe these groups were befriended by German agents and some evidence suggests they may have played a role in the explosion at Black Tom. In any case the West German government would finally pay the last installment of the fifty million dollar settlement, by now mostly interest in April of 1978.

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Postcards are often praised for their ability to capture history but they are just as often poor reflections of it. Publishers are not historians; they are businessmen trying to make a profit. They follow their audience for guidance, a market full of whims, prejudice, and hidden agendas. There were at least 19 different postcards of the Deutschland’s visit published in the United States and many more produced in Germany where Captain Koenig was turned into a decorated hero. Finding postcards related to the Black Tom explosion on the other hand are a rare occurrence though for obvious reasons none of these were ever made in Germany. We are all very selective in what we choose to remember. History is not so much about facts but how events fall into prevailing myths, and that which does not easily fit in does not enter the public consciousness. In the years just before and after the Great War no one wanted to believe such an attack could take place here so few wanted postcards that would remind us that it did. Even President Wilson was apparently shocked to learn that international espionage was a common practice among the European empires. What was left of Black Tom slowly disappeared over time under the landfill that now makes up Liberty State Park. Many stood there on September 11th, 2001 watching a new tragedy unfold, oblivious to the history beneath their feet.

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July 5, 2010

La Tarasque

By Alan Petrulis

When the skeletal remains of a new type of Theropod dinosaur were unearthed in the Rhone Valley of southern France in 1991 there was little debate as to what to name it. The Tarascosaurus as it came to be known was only the latest tribute to the ancient six legged tortoised shelled creature with a lions head, piercing scales, and scorpion sting that was said to have once inhabited this land. Born of the Leviathan and Bonachus in Galatia, all that knew her called her the Tarasque. After making her way to Nerluc in Provence she traveled no further taking up residence in a lake bottom. Soon her habit of devouring local virgins drew the attention of the king and he sent out his best knights to kill the Tarasque. They fought bravely but even when armed with catapults they could make no headway against this monster. Appeals for help fell on deaf ears allowing the Tarasque to ravage and terrorize the countryside for many more years. With no remedy in sight the community began to believe they had no choice but to abandon their town.

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At this crucial crossroads that lay before them a young barefoot maiden wandered into town. She was Saint Martha, and all were so taken by her good deeds and great beauty that her arrival seemed as if it were a sign from God. These pagan townsfolk appealed to her for help but she agreed only to do so if they would prey to the Christian God for three days. After overseeing their prayers Martha set out alone and found the Tarasque deep in the forest intently engaged in eating a local man. Some say she picked up two fallen tree branches at the sight this horrific deed to make the sign of the cross. This allowed her to safely approach the creature and pour holy water over it. Others say it was her wonderful voice that charmed the beast, that she broke out into songs praising God and these hymns transfixed the monster until it fell into a peaceful rapture. In either case the soothed Tarasque lay down afterwards at Martha’s feet as docile as a lamb. Martha then used one of its razor sharp teeth to cut off her braids and with a bridle made from it she led the Tarasque back to town.

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When the townsfolk saw the monster headed their way terror swept through the streets and they quickly took up arms. Unaware of its miraculous transformation the creature was pelted with a continuous barrage of stones and spears from the moment of its arrival. The tamed Tarasque, finally vulnerable to the hostility of others died a bloody but quiet death. Martha broke out in tears at the sight of the beast’s unwarranted demise but she forgave the people of the town understanding the long suffering they all endured. In remorse these new found Christians rename their town Tarascon to honor of the creature they brutally killed, and a church would also be built, St. Martha’s to honor their young savior. Ever since, La Tarasque has been the town’s beloved emblem and mascot.

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Though this legend dates back to the late 12th century the use of an effigy to represent the Tarasque was first documented as part of the town’s religious festivities in 1461. The procession of the effigy, accompanied by specially costumed men known as Tarascaires were held every year until interrupted by the French Revolution. In the mid 19th century a new effigy was built out of canvas stretched over a wooden frame that was paraded out on Whit Monday. It held five men who would work its moveable parts and shoot fireworks out from its nostrils. As it was pushed along the street its long tail would suddenly lash out often causing serious injuries among the spectators. This in turn would inspire great cheers within the crowds. Some brave souls would risk further injury trying to tear off its spiky scales for good luck. Upon reaching St. Martha’s the Tarasque would finally stop and bow three times. Many of the festivities that followed would also involve injurious pranks that seem to be a vital part of the event. The Tarasque effigy was brought out for the more solemn feast of St. Martha held every July 29th. A young girl would lead the Tarasque by a leash of ribbon followed by men dressed as medieval soldiers and a shrine containing relics of the Saint.

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With the old effigy relegated to the status of a museum relic itself, a newer fiberglass version has taken its place on the streets. The Tarasque however is now brought out on the last sunday in June to help celebrate the historic legends of Tarascon. Over time it is the beast that seems to have captured the public’s imagination more than the revered Saint. Popular objects of public consumption such as postcards can often give us more than a glimmer into contemporary values. Talk as they say is cheap but when money is put down for something it can reveal the true interests of the time. La Tarasque has been able to provided the subject matter for postcards for over a century for she draws on something deep within us. She represents the same sense of balance between light and shadow as we find between Krampus and St. Nick. When I first saw this card I knew nothing of the legend; I picked it up, put it back, then returned for it as if it had some magical pull. Perhaps it is this same magic that draws all of us to postcards.

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