Never mind that in trying to establish that voter fraud in American elections is a national problem, Stealing America: Vote by Vote mostly relies on insinuation, anecdotes, and quotes from blogs. Never mind that it trusts the viewer’s intelligence so little that the opening Thomas Paine quote isn’t just shown on-screen but also read out loud (including the author’s name) for the presumably illiterate by narrator Peter Coyote. Never mind that it follows that insult with an unsubtle shot of the White House behind bars. Never mind that much of the footage—when it’s not talking heads, news clips, or bar graphs—consists simply of Daily Show excerpts taken as the last word in incisive media commentary. Never mind that in the rush to make its case, the movie forgoes any serious investigation and treats paranoid liberal conspiracy theories as fact. Never mind that the film complains at one point that allegations of electronic-voting screw-ups were completely ignored by the mainstream media, only to use clips from CNN and Fox News to validate itself. Never mind any of this. What matters is that Stealing America: Vote by Vote—even by the political video documentary’s meager standards—plays like a particularly dull PowerPoint presentation. The case it lays out is factually sketchy, but as a movie, it’s unforgivable.
I read nothing except the criminal news and the agony column,” Sherlock Holmes once mused. Personal ads—what the British call the “agony column”—were, Doyle’s detective observed, “surely the most valuable hunting ground that was ever given to a student of the unusual!” They lacked a modern-day Sherlock to decipher their intricacies—but no longer, thanks to Sara Bader’s new Strange Red Cow and Other Curious Classified Ads From the Past (Clarkson Potter).
America’s first classified ad appeared in 1704, seeking “Two Iron Anvils” lost by their owner. This begs the question: How do you lose an anvil? But classifieds thrived from that odd beginning, evolving into rhymed tradesmen ads, help-wanteds, barter ads, and—inevitably—the first personals ad in 1759. But among the quaint ads seeking a woman “who must love a mustache” or lost livestock—e.g., the “strange red cow” of the book’s title—you soon find notices like this in 1804: “Stop the Runaway. FIFTY DOLLARS REWARD. Eloped from the subscriber, living near Nashville, on the 25th of June last, a Mulatto Man Slave . . . ten dollars extra [reward], for every hundred lashes, any person will give him, to the amount of three hundred.”
The cruel master who placed that ad? Andrew Jackson. The future president was not alone; Bader also reproduces runaway-slave newspaper ads by Washington in 1761 and Jefferson in 1769. Lost-and-found ads always give a telltale account of an era: After the Civil War one finds ads for missing lockets bearing the snips of hair of the departed, though sometimes other pieces went missing too. An 1866 Boston Evening Transcript carries the plea “LOST—On the Common, on the 23rd ult, an ARTIFICIAL HAND.” Bader also finds a surprising number—even one should be a surprising number—of Found ads for money. One advertiser seems so conscience stricken that he placed this ad in 1849, four years after finding the money: “FOUND, FOUR DOLLARS, WHILE LEAVING THE CARS at Paterson, in the summer of 1845.”
But the enduring charm of classifieds has always lain in the
personals. Not everyone was impressed: Missed Connection and I Saw You ads seemed just as faintly pathetic to Mark Twain in 1867 as they do today. “There seems to be a pack of wooden-headed louts about this town,” he snapped, “who fall in love with every strumpet who smiles a flabby smile at them in a street car, and forthwith they pop a personal into the Herald.”
The personals can also be a graveyard of romance; one uncovered by Bader from an 1862 [New York] Sunday Mercury reads:
“X.Z.—IF YOU MUST HAVE A REASON why I refuse you, understand, then that I cannot marry a man who wears soiled linen, has foul teeth and breath, and uses tobasco and whisky. Faugh!”
Sometimes the ad is the literal headstone of romance: Bader recounts the tale of Belle Gunness, a Norwegian woman who lured at least a dozen men and women to shallow backyard graves through personals in turn-of-the-century Indiana. She appears to have absconded and lived for perhaps another three decades in L.A., one suspects after permanenty ending the loneliness of California men through her nickel-a-word murder weapon.
Strange Red Cow is a book of American ads: The mind reels at the possibilities if anyone were to compile a companion volume of British ones. As early as 1843 a writer for the Edinburgh Review was digging up such agony column gems as “IF WILLIAM will return to his affectionate parents, he shall not be snubbed by his sister, and be allowed to sweeten his own tea.” Tea was no small matter over there; another ad simply read “TO
M.N.—If you don’t choose to come back, please to return the key of the tea-caddy.”
Pore over the classified columns in old British papers—and I recommend that you bring both a strong pair of reading glasses and a strong pair of eyeballs to the task—and you start discovering the news beneath the news, the vast depths of unplumbed minutiae. In the 1790s, for instance, we find tutoring in “The Digitalian Language,” apparently a fad for hand signaling among fashionable ladies—one imagines Georgian women throwing gang signs at each other. I’ve never found the phrase again in any other source. If only the man who placed the ad were still responding to enquiries at No. 11 St. Clement’s Churchyard . . . but no. The ad is all we have now, a tantalizing hint of a forgotten past.
Other ads, though, are reassuring in their timelessness. Sick of your landlord? Then read this ad from 1816:
“WANTED IMMEDIATELY, to enable me to leave the House which I have for these last five years inhabited, in the same plight and condition in which I found it, 500 LIVE RATS, for which I will gladly pay the sum of L.5 Sterling; and, as I cannot leave the Farm attached thereto in the same order as I got it without at least Five Millions of Docks, Dockens (weeds), I do hereby promise a further sum of L.5 sterling for said number of Dockens. . . .
N.B. The Rats must be full grown, and no cripples.”
The classifieds were a haven for this dry British humor; the Pall Mall Gazette once ran an ad for a “DOG.—Required a kind master for an excellent black retriever dog. Owner parts with him on no other account than his savage tendencies.” One can even find high-flown literature itself—of a sort—among the classifieds. Before the advent of display ads, commercial ads were crammed alongside everyone else’s and merchants vied to outdo each other in the floridness and cleverness of their compositions. It was widely rumored in the early 1800s that Lord Byron was receiving a year to write verses praising Warren’s Blacking Shoe Polish. To wit: “As I one morning shaving sat,/For dinner time preparing,/A dreadful howling from the cat/Set all the room a staring!/Sudden I turn’d—beheld a scene/ I could not but delight in,/For in my boot, so bright and clean,/The cat her face was fighting./Bright was the boot—its surface fair,/In lustre nothing lacking;/I never saw one half so clear,/Except by WARREN’S BLACKING.”
You won’t find that one in your Norton anthology. You will find it, though, in the classifieds.
Even as early as 1692, London had an entire newspaper containing nothing but ads—The City Mercury, the forerunner of the modern Pennysaver. Classifieds possess a fascination all their own; whole newspapers and books can be made of them. And that is what makes Bader’s collection of American classifieds such a wonderful find. Strange Red Cow is quirky and entertaining, but it is also something more: It heralds a new genre in overlooked history.
Paul Collins’s latest book is The Trouble With Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine (Bloomsbury).
Paul Collins’s reads at the Housing Works Used Book Café November 9.
In 1776, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was being read throughout the new small nation celebrating its glorious independence. “We have it in our power,” he wrote, “to begin the world over again.”
Eric Foner, in his The Story of American Freedom (Norton)—an indispensable recent book that should be read in every school in the land—quotes again from Paine on the Revolution:
“We see with other eyes, we hear with other ears, and think with other thoughts than we formerly used.”
Yet here we are, 223 years later, with two out of every three Americans fiercely protecting the president of the United States from removal from office. It’s the old world all over again.
The people are speaking and demonstrating on behalf of a multiple perjurer, a sexual predator, a man who subverted another citizen’s right to due process by deliberately perjuring himself in a deposition in Paula Jones’s trial.
Due process—fairness—is the basis of our system of justice. William O. Douglas once said, “The history of liberty is the history of due process.”
Obstruction of justice destroys due process. Yet, as I have described—with facts, not speculation—in the last two columns, Clinton, through his agents, has threatened and otherwise intimidated a series of his disposable women to prevent them from testifying against him.
Liberals, intellectuals, members of the clergy devoted to situational ethics, and stars of stage and screen are rallying around a president who has continually defiled the Constitution, that guarantee of our rights and liberties that was born of the Revolution.
They hold teach-ins for the president, who has tried to demonstrate his machismo by selling out habeas corpus and championing the death penalty. In the first radio commercial of his campaign for reelection as president, he boasted of increasing the number of federal death penalties.
He has deported aliens without their being able to see the evidence against them. The record of his contempt for the Bill of Rights could fill many columns—and, indeed, has occupied a lot of this space for the past six years.
So why is this flimflam man, this bunko artist, getting away with it?
It’s the economy, stupid, as hordes of jejune commentators keep telling us. Folks are doing fine. Except for the millions of two-and three-job families and except for the fact that the demand from indigent citizens is outstripping the supply of soup kitchens.
The president so cherished by the illuminati, among others, created welfare “reform,” which—as Frances Fox Piven, distinguished professor of political science and sociology at City University, points out—has created a “financial incentive for the states to slash the rolls….Early reports on what has happened to the families dropped from the rolls are ominous… whether they actually find work or not, the policy of pushing hundreds of thousands of desperate mothers
into the search for work is certain to drive down wages at the bottom of the labor market where wage recovery has just begun.”
But “leaders” of the feminist movement are among the most ardent protectors of the president—as are so many liberals whose concern for the underclass has somehow evaporated.
Insofar as those benefiting from the economy may account for some of Clinton’s support, the poor—and God loved them so, he made so many of them—are being shafted as usual.
There is another reason why Mr. Bill—as his admirer, Stanley Crouch, calls him—keeps climbing up the polls. There is an American tradition of the charming rogue, the trickster, who is so daring in his evasion of the law that he becomes a romantic figure.
Or, as Katie Roiphe, a Clinton acolyte, said on Nightline (January 8): “We are tired of having all sides of sexual aggressiveness in a man be criminalized. Here comes, you know, this very charismatic leader and he acts on his appetites and he acts on his impulses, and even if we wouldn’t want to marry him, and even if we don’t condone his behavior, there is something about Bill Clinton that captures our imagination, that remains and is appealing.”
Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The superb New Encyclopedia of the American West (Yale University Press) notes that Cassidy was a rustler and robbed trains and banks. His dashing colleague, the Sundance Kid, was also a gunslinging desperado, reportedly even more charismatic—as Ms. Roiphe might say—than Cassidy.
Their exploits made them American legends, all the more after George Roy Hill’s 1969 movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, still often seen on television. The real Sundance Kid and Cassidy were supposedly killed by Bolivian troops in San Vicente, Bolivia, in 1911.
But, as The New Encyclopedia of the American West points out, “no proof exists that the men killed there were Butch and Sundance. The families of both men claim that they slipped out of South America and quietly reentered the United States.”
It might be worth digging up William Jefferson Clinton’s birth certificate. The Sundance Kid was reported to be alive as late as 1957. Could Mr. Bill be the Sundance Kid’s true hidden child?
Next week: Can only Our Bill save us from the Christian Right?