On March 7, here at The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal marked the 135th anniversary of Alexander Graham Bell's patent for the telephone by reproducing Bell's quirky sketch of the device, submitted as part of the patent application. Later, Alexis linked to more of Bell's "delightfully weird sketches," which he found in a Library of Congress online archive of the Bell family's papers.
Bell was 29 when he received the patent, which made him a wealthy man. He spent much of the next half-century pursuing eclectic interests in aviation, sheep genetics, and water desalination at Beinn Bhreagh, a gorgeous estate a few miles across the Bras d'Or Lake from my home. Bell is still a big deal around here, and Parks Canada operates a museum in his honor at nearby Baddeck, Nova Scotia.
Alexis's posts prompted me to explore the LOC's online database, where I turned up a curious episode in which Bell wrote President Theodore Roosevelt, asking him to intercede in the case of a black employee's Jim Crow treatment at the hands of Nova Scotia hoteliers. The story provides a rare glimpse into the Bell family's surprisingly progressive social attitudes.
Charles F. Thompson was nominally Bell's butler, but biographer Robert Bruce more aptly describes him as the absent-minded inventor's "chief proxy in coping with the gritty details of domestic life." Thompson was 18 and living in a Washington rooming house when he met the Bells in 1887. Fire had broken out in the Bells' nearby home, and while quickly extinguished, it left Bell's papers in disarray and suffering water damage. A housekeeper recruited the rooming house residents to help clean up. Thompson proved adept at the rare skill of deciphering Bell's scrawled handwriting, and this led to a permanent position.
Like Bell, Thompson eventually became a frequent seasonal resident of Baddeck. On a visit to nearby Sydney in late November, 1904, he and his wife tried to check into the Grand Hotel, but were turned away. In a severe downpour, they were rejected at four other hotels, before finding refuge at a sixth.
When Thompson returned to Baddeck with a serious cold, Bell and his circle of friends in the town were outraged. The inventor wrote first to the U.S. Consul in Sydney:
I know Mr. Thompson very well as he has been in my employment for about twenty years, if not more," he wrote the consul. "He is an upright, conscientious man in whom I have the highest confidence. He has traveled with me in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, France, Italy and Great Britain, as well as in Japan and the Hawaiian Islands, and never outside of his own country has he been discriminated against on account of his color except in Sydney, Cape Breton Island -- at least so far as I know.
However one may deplore the existence of the color line in certain parts of the United States, we have hotels there specially for colored people, so that the exclusion of a respectable colored man from a public hotel in our country does not work the hardship it does in Sydney. Exclusion from six of the hotels of Sydney resulted in turning these people out into the cold and wet, during one of the most severe storms of the season without a place where they could lay their heads...
Mr. Thompson is now lying ill in my house here as the result of the exposure, and his wife also is far from well. I propose to call the attention of the State Department in Washington to the necessity of providing protection for colored citizens of the United States in Canada -- so as to prevent the possibility of the repetition of another such outrage as this. There is nothing in the appearance of Mr. and Mrs. Thompson, or in their manners or characters to justify exclusion from any hotel. There is so little of the negro in Mr. Thompson's appearance that he has often -- in foreign countries -- been taken for a Japanese, while his wife might well pass for Spanish.
Click on the image above for a full-sized copy of Bell's subsequent letter to the president, requesting a state department investigation. There is no indication of a reply. The Bells' Baddeck neighbors convened and delivered a letter of apology to the ailing Thompson:
We do not understand why a respectable couple (as we all know you to be) although colored, should be turned away from any Hotel, and we sincerely hope that you and Mrs. Thompson may long be spared to spend many summers on Canadian soil and receive treatment from the hands of the public that a gentleman of your esteem so well deserves.
Further poking around the Bell's online papers turned up Mabel Hubbard Bell's reflections on a farewell dance she staged for Thompson two years earlier, as he was preparing the leave Baddeck for Washington, where he was to be married. Mrs. Bell, a redoubtable figure in her own right, wrote:
I realized last night how impossible it would have been to have given an entertainment like that in Washington. The farmers and farm help might have been invited, buttheywouldnothavecome -- to greet a colored man -- and associate on equal terms with him -- the white girls would not have danced with a colored man like Charles -- even though -- as in this case -- he might have been gentlemanly in appearance and better educated than themselves.
[Mrs. Bell's emphasis. Click on ther image to view the entire journal entry.]
Alas, the Sydney episode was probably more typical of racial attitudes that prevailed in Nova Scotia at the time. Nova Scotia was a terminus for the Underground Railway, and more recent history is replete with examples of racism (here and here). Thompson's close association with the revered AGB undoubtedly played a key role in his acceptance by the Baddeck community.
Thanks to Baddeck historian and Bell buff Jocelyn Bethune for help piecing together the background of the story.
Parker Donham, a writer and consultant who lives on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, blogs at Contrarian.ca.
James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne.
On “Back to Back Freestyle” and “Charged Up,” the rapper forgoes the high road in his beef with Meek Mill.
Once upon a time, Drake made a vow of silence. “Diss me, you'll never hear a reply for it,” he said on “Successful,” the 2009 song in which the Toronto rapper correctly predicted he’d soon be superwealthy. This week, Drake has broken his vow twice over, a fact about which he seems conflicted. “When I look back,” he says on the new track “Back to Back Freestyle,” “I might be mad that I gave this attention.”
“This” is the beef started by the 28-year-old Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill, who recently tweeted accusations that Drake doesn’t write his own material. Depending on who you talk to or how you look at it, this is either a big deal or no deal at all. On Instagram, Lupe Fiasco had a good take: “Ghostwriting, or borrowing lines, or taking suggestions from the room has always been in rap and will always be in rap. It is nothing to go crazy over or be offended about unless you are someone who postures him or herself on the importance of authenticity and tries to portray that quality to your fans or the public at large. Then we might have a problem.”
Even when they’re adopted, the children of the wealthy grow up to be just as well-off as their parents.
Lately, it seems that every new study about social mobility further corrodes the story Americans tell themselves about meritocracy; each one provides more evidence that comfortable lives are reserved for the winners of what sociologists call the birth lottery. But, recently, there have been suggestions that the birth lottery’s outcomes can be manipulated even after the fluttering ping-pong balls of inequality have been drawn.
What appears to matter—a lot—is environment, and that’s something that can be controlled. For example, one study out of Harvard found that moving poor families into better neighborhoods greatly increased the chances that children would escape poverty when they grew up.
While it’s well documentedthat the children of the wealthy tend to grow up to be wealthy, researchers are still at work on how and why that happens. Perhaps they grow up to be rich because they genetically inherit certain skills and preferences, such as a tendency to tuck away money into savings. Or perhaps it’s mostly because wealthier parents invest more in their children’s education and help them get well-paid jobs. Is it more nature, or more nurture?
The Vermont senator’s revolutionary zeal has met its moment.
There’s no way this man could be president, right? Just look at him: rumpled and scowling, bald pate topped by an entropic nimbus of white hair. Just listen to him: ranting, in his gravelly Brooklyn accent, about socialism. Socialism!
And yet here we are: In the biggest surprise of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, this thoroughly implausible man, Bernie Sanders, is a sensation.
He is drawing enormous crowds—11,000 in Phoenix, 8,000 in Dallas, 2,500 in Council Bluffs, Iowa—the largest turnout of any candidate from any party in the first-to-vote primary state. He has raised $15 million in mostly small donations, to Hillary Clinton’s $45 million—and unlike her, he did it without holding a single fundraiser. Shocking the political establishment, it is Sanders—not Martin O’Malley, the fresh-faced former two-term governor of Maryland; not Joe Biden, the sitting vice president—to whom discontented Democratic voters looking for an alternative to Clinton have turned.
During the multi-country press tour for Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, not even Jon Stewart has dared ask Tom Cruise about Scientology.
During the media blitz for Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation over the past two weeks, Tom Cruise has seemingly been everywhere. In London, he participated in a live interview at the British Film Institute with the presenter Alex Zane, the movie’s director, Christopher McQuarrie, and a handful of his fellow cast members. In New York, he faced off with Jimmy Fallon in a lip-sync battle on The Tonight Show and attended the Monday night premiere in Times Square. And, on Tuesday afternoon, the actor recorded an appearance on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, where he discussed his exercise regime, the importance of a healthy diet, and how he still has all his own hair at 53.
Stewart, who during his career has won two Peabody Awards for public service and the Orwell Award for “distinguished contribution to honesty and clarity in public language,” represented the most challenging interviewer Cruise has faced on the tour, during a challenging year for the actor. In April, HBO broadcast Alex Gibney’s documentary Going Clear, a film based on the book of the same title by Lawrence Wright exploring the Church of Scientology, of which Cruise is a high-profile member. The movie alleges, among other things, that the actor personally profited from slave labor (church members who were paid 40 cents an hour to outfit the star’s airplane hangar and motorcycle), and that his former girlfriend, the actress Nazanin Boniadi, was punished by the Church by being forced to do menial work after telling a friend about her relationship troubles with Cruise. For Cruise “not to address the allegations of abuse,” Gibney said in January, “seems to me palpably irresponsible.” But in The Daily Show interview, as with all of Cruise’s other appearances, Scientology wasn’t mentioned.
The authors in the running for Britain's most prestigious literary award come from seven countries and include seven women writers.
The longlist for the Man Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious literary awards, was announced Wednesday. For the second year, the prize was open to writers of any nationality who publish books in English in the U.K., and this year five American writers made the list of 13 contenders, chosen by five judges from a pool of 156 total works.
The U.S. is, in fact, the most well-represented country, with other entrants hailing from Great Britain, Jamaica, New Zealand, Nigeria, Ireland, and India. There are three debut novelists and one former winner on the list, and women writers outnumber men seven to six. From dystopian and political novels to a multitude of iterations on the family drama, the selections capture the ever-changing human experience in very different ways.
After the video contradicted his account, a campus cop in Cincinnati is charged in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black motorist.
On July 19, 2015, a 43-year-old Cincinnati man named Samuel DuBose was pulled over by a University of Cincinnati police officer, Ray Tensing. Tensing was white. Dubose was black. His car was stopped for missing its front license plate.
Minutes later, Tensing shot DuBose in the head, killing him.
What happened between getting pulled over and DuBose’s death?
After the two men briefly exchange words, DuBose's vehicle is seen to roll forward. Tensing then shoots him in the head. Tensing was indicted Wednesday on charges of murder and voluntary manslaughter.
“This is without question a murder,” said Joe Deters, the prosecutor for Hamilton County, Ohio, at a news conference Wednesday. “He didn’t do anything violent toward the officer. He wasn’t dragging him. And [Tensing] pulled out his gun and shot him in the head.”
An off-duty Medford, Massachusetts, cop threatened a motorist during a traffic stop. His colleagues seemed unperturbed by his behavior.
Three years ago in Medford, Massachusetts, narcotics detective Stephen LeBert calmly told the brother of a man he was arresting, “He’s selling drugs illegally. What they should do is just take him up to the railroad tracks and tell him to lay down.” He knew he was being recorded as he made the comment, as moments earlier, the footage shows him licking his finger and wiping saliva on the citizen’s lens. Medford Police Chief Leo Sacco says that he was counseled after the incident.
After watching that video, it comes as no great surprise that Detective LeBert was suspended earlier this week for another instance of misbehavior recorded by a citizen:
The footage, captured by the dashboard camera on a motorist’s vehicle, begins shortly after the driver got confused at a roundabout in an unfamiliar neighborhood and wound up briefly driving on the wrong side of the road (an error for which he would repeatedly apologize). At first, the motorist is terrified and starts to flee because Detective LeBert, who is driving an unmarked pickup truck and plainclothes, does not identify himself as a police officer, even as he is upset that the motorist doesn’t defer to him. “I’ll put a hole right through your fucking head,’’ LeBert says. “Pull your car over. I’ll put a hole right in your fucking head. I’ll put a hole right through your head.’’ The motorist begins to cooperate as soon as a badge is produced.
Educators seldom have enough time to do their business. What’s that doing to the state of learning?
It’s common knowledge that teachers today are stressed, that they feel underappreciated and disrespected, and disillusioned. It’s no wonder they’re ditching the classroom at such high rates—to the point where states from Indiana to Arizona to Kansas are dealing with teacher shortages. Meanwhile, the number of American students who go into teaching is steadily dropping.
A recent survey conducted jointly by the American Federation of Teachers and Badass Teachers Association asked educators about the quality of their worklife, and it got some pretty harrowing feedback. Just 15 percent of the 30,000 respondents, for example, strongly agreed that they’re enthusiastic about the profession. Compare that to the roughly 90 percent percent who strongly agreed that they were enthusiastic about it when they started their career, and it’s clear that something has changed about schools that’s pushing them away. Roughly three in four respondents said they “often” feel stressed by their jobs.
A newly discovered artifact buried with one of Jamestown’s most prominent leaders suggests he could have been a crypto-Catholic.
After 400 years in the Virginia dirt, the box came out of the ground looking like it had been plucked from the ocean. A tiny silver brick, now encrusted with a green patina and rough as sandpaper. Buried beneath it was a human skeleton. The remains would later be identified as those of Captain Gabriel Archer, one of the most prominent leaders at Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in America. But it was the box, which appeared to be an ancient Catholic reliquary, that had archaeologists bewildered and astonished.
“One of the major surprises was the discovery of this mysterious small silver box,” said James Horn, the president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation. “I have to say, we’re still trying to figure this out. You have the very strange situation of a Catholic reliquary being found with the leader of the first Protestant church in the country.”
Donald Trump has gained political traction by demagoguing on an issue more responsible leaders have neglected.
Why has the Donald Trump candidacy—which so many professionals and pundits at first dismissed as a joke—flared this summer? In the first week of July, 15 percent of Republicans supported Trump for president in a YouGov poll. By the third week, that support had almost doubled, to 28 percent—with another 10 percent listing him as their second choice.
Something happened in July to send Trump’s numbers soaring. That something may have been the murder of Kathryn Steinle.
On July 5, the 32-year-old Steinle posed with her father for a photograph on a San Francisco pier at 6:30 on a Wednesday evening. Suddenly there was a pop. Steinle crumpled. She died in hospital two hours later.
The stunningly random killing left behind a devastated family—and a confessed killer: Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, an illegal immigrant from Mexico who had been convicted of seven previous felonies and five times been ordered deported from the United States.