17 April 2024

“Outside the Box” Opening Reception in Jamaica Plain, 21 April

With friends from the Boston Comics Roundtable, I’m helping to organize an exhibit of comics art in the gallery of the Footlight Club, America’s oldest continuously running community theater. It’s on Eliot Street in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston.

A few weeks back, a volunteer at that theater contacted our group about assembling a show. Its current production is Tuck Everlasting, a family musical based on Natalie Babbitt’s novel, so he wanted to showcase art that would appeal to kids.

Many B.C.R. members have created comics for kids, and co-founder Dan Mazur published Boston Powers, a comic book with short, local superhero stories. So there was a good talent pool to choose from.

The exhibit has ended up featuring thirteen artists, including Boston Powers contributors, folks publishing on their own on paper or the web, a couple of graphic novelists (Jonathan Todd, Jerel Dye), and even a picture-book artist who works in comics form (Lindsay Leigh).

I’m represented through the work of Brendan Tobin, with pages from our “Stupendo and Secret Girl” collaboration.

This Sunday, 21 April, at 1:00 PM we’ll have a reception to celebrate the exhibit before a matinee performance of the musical. The art will remain up before, during, and after every show for families to enjoy. 

20 March 2024

The Characters of Oz “a real treat”

In the latest Baum Bugle from the International Wizard of Oz Club, Scott Cummings calls The Characters of Oz “a real treat and a fresh addition to the Oz reference shelf.”

I’m flattered by the review’s praise for my essay on the Wizard himself, especially how the “insightful comment that ‘Baum built most of his characters around contradictions’ casts a valuable light on the entire volume.” I’d been looking for a place to install that comment in Oz commentary. Those paragraphs got some extra airing back here.

Part of the brief for contributors to this collection was to examine the characters through multiple forms of the Oz mythos. The story has long sprawled across stage, screen, comics, and other media. Thanks to the public domain, there has been an explosion of adaptations in the last few decades, though only a few have really embedded themselves deep in the culture.

I could have applied my lens of “a good man but a bad wizard” to such later retellings as The Wiz, Wicked, and Oz the Great and Powerful. But I felt on surer ground looking at the Wizard as he appeared in the first forty years, from the original book to the MGM movie. That allowed for a more manageable narrative, and narrative is how I naturally think.

That choice evidently worked out, with Cummings calling that chapter, “Perhaps because of the tighter focus,…especially successful.”

Looking back, I see that approach paralleled how I looked at the first thirty years of Dick Grayson for another collection from the same publisher. So I guess that’s what I like.

19 March 2024

On the Road to CharlOz, Sept. 26–29

On September 26-29, 2024, the city of Charlotte, North Carolina; the University of North Carolina at Charlotte; and other local and national organizations will host CharlOz, a stretching over four days to explore the Oz mythos and its cultural legacy.

I’ll be there, speaking at two events on the schedule for Friday, 27 September:
  • a panel discussion of the new essay collection The Characters of Oz, featuring editor Dina Massachi and fellow contributors Mark West, Katharine Kittredge, Walter Squire, Paige Gray, Angelica Shirley Carpenter, and Gita Dorothy Morena.
  • a talk later that afternoon titled “‘My! what a lot of Kings and Queens!’: The Meanings of Monarchy in L. Frank Baum’s Fantasies.”
The schedule of CharlOz events includes many other speakers and presentations, including:
  • an opening keynote speech by novelist Gregory Maguire.
  • presentations by comics artists Eric Shanower and Janet R. Lee, puppeteer and director James Ortiz, and film restorer Nate Barlow.
  • talks by scholars Ryan Bunch, Angelica Shirley Carpenter, Atticus Gannaway, Judy Bieber, Anastasia Rose Hyden, Brady Schwind, Paige Gray, Katharine Kittredge, and many more.
  • a Saturday full of family programming.
  • theatrical, cinematic, and gallery interpretations of Oz.
The International Wizard of Oz Club will also have its national convention in Charlotte coinciding with this festival.

16 March 2024

“Historic Children’s Voices” Coming from American Antiquarian Society

The American Antiquarian Society in Worcester will launch a website on “Historic Children’s Voices, 1799-1899.”

Its introductory page explains: “The holdings to be digitized are not children’s literature, i.e., works created BY adults FOR children, but rather are direct testimony as well as imaginative works created BY children. As such, they constitute an archive of historical evidence not previously accessible.”

The materials to be digitized include diaries, letters, stories, poems, and the AAS’s “large amateur newspaper collection—most printed on home parlor presses.” There will be 15,000 pages of content in all.

Those presses were very popular in the late 1800s. When L. Frank Baum issued the Rose Lawn Home Journal and later self-published works on stamp collecting and chicken farming, he was among thousands of young people working their own small presses.

Accompanying the website, the AAS will host an in-person and online symposium on 2–3 May featuring panel discussions on “Authentic Children’s Voices,” “Archival Silences,” “Visual Culture of Children’s Production,” and “Hearing the Child’s Voice.”

On 5–9 August, the AAS will host an institute for K-12 teachers on the subject, with hands-on workshops using the collection and a field trip to Lowell National Historical Park.

19 January 2024

Detecting Style

“Red Eye” is a short story by Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane. It was published in Face Off and then in The Best American Mystery Stories 2015, where I read it.

David Baldacci, the editor of Face Off, invited established crime writers to write short stories that brought their lead characters together. In “Red Eye,” Connolly’s L.A. police detective Harry Bosch meets Lehane’s Boston private eye Patrick Kenzie.

It looks like Connolly and Lehane traded sections, Connolly writing those parts told by following Bosch and Lehane those tracking Kenzie. Usually Kenzie is the narrator of the novels that feature him, but to match Connolly Lehane wrote in the close third person.

Even beyond the central characters, the sections are easily distinguished by the authors’ styles. Connolly is stripped down, short sentences and terse observations.

Lehane’s sections, in contrast, are full of sentence fragments, aphroisms, metaphors. It’s still hard-boiled prose, but it’s not afraid of style.

The contrast reminds me of the difference between Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. And I like a little more ornament in my prose.

27 November 2023

The Man with a Butler Did It

This month I read two British murder mysteries, published twenty years apart, in which the culprit turned out to be the local bigwig killing someone who was blackmailing him.

(I’m withholding the names of those books to protect the dénouements.)

Now I’m trying to figure out if that trope suggests an ingrained suspicion of privilege, showing that the local wealthy squire is not to be trusted.

Or do those books reinforce social hierarchies, since both these murderers had risen from the lower classes to their high places in society through blackmailable methods?

25 November 2023

“A society of men here called high-binders”

The California Gold Rush made San Francisco a boom town. It attracted Americans from the East Coast, of course, and also people from southern China.

Within a couple of decades, some Americans of northern European backgrounds began to view Chinese immigration as a problem. In particular, they pointed to violent male criminals who trafficked young women and fought men from other organizations.

To label that type of criminal, newspaper editors and government officials reached back several decades.

The Weekly Alta California for 5 Feb 1870 referred to a ring of Chinese immigrants as “a gang of ‘Celestial highbinders’.” In this period “Celestial” was a codeword for Chinese, China being the “Celestial Empire.”

On 2 May 1876, at a California state senate hearing on “The Social, Moral, and Political Effect of Chinese Immigration,” the Sacramento police officer Charles P. O’Neil testified:
On I Street there are from one hundred and fifty to two hundred of what we call “highbinders,” living off the houses of prostitution, and they are mixed up with the gamblers. You might call them hoodlums.
The U.S. Congress formed a Joint Special Committee to Investigate Chinese Immigration, and in the fall of 1876 China trader Thomas H. King testified about “the large force of the six companies’ high-binders, who can always be seen guarding [contract laborers].”

A senator asked: “What do you mean by ‘highbinders’?”

King replied: “I mean men who are employed by these companies here to hound and spy on these Chinese and pursue them if they do not comply with their contract as they see fit to judge it.”

“It is a term to express Chinese persons who act in that capacity?”

“I have often heard the term applied to designate bad men. It is an English term, I believe.”

Later the Rev. Augustus W. Loomis, a Presbyterian missionary, objected to King’s claim:
…he expatiates about the high-binders, hired assassins, kept by the six companies to intimidate the coolies. These are simply assertions without proof. . . . I have heard the papers speak of them. I do not know of any such people.
But even Loomis acknowledged people were using the term.

At those same hearings, San Francisco police officer Michael A. Smith said:
There is also a society of men here called high-binders, or hatchet-men. . . . A great many of them carry a hatchet with the handle cut off; it may be about six inches long, with a handle and a hole cut in it; they have the handle sawed off a little, leaving just enough to keep a good hold.
Since “high-binders” had fallen out of use as a general term for hoodlums, Californians could seize on it to mean Chinese hoodlums in particular. In 1877, O. Gibson’s The Chinese in America stated:
…associations of Chinese villains and cut-throats have been formed for the purpose of protecting the owners of women and girls in their property rights, and of doing any other villainous business that comes to hand.

The San Francisco press know these men by the term of “Highbinders.”
In The Hatchet Men: The Story of the Tong Wars in San Francisco’s Chinatown (1962), Richard H. Dillon wrote:
While giving testimony during the 1870’s in regard to evildoing in Chinatown, Special Officer Delos Woodruff answered a question from the bench by saying, “A lot of highbinders came to the place—”

The judge interrupted him with a gesture of his hand. “What do you mean by ‘highbinders’?” His honor queried.

“Why,” replied Woodruff, “a lot of Chinese hoodlums.”

The judge persisted, “And that’s the term you apply to Chinese hoodlums, is it?”

“That’s what I call them,” responded Woodruff.
The source for this exchange is almost certainly an item in the 19 Mar 1893 (San Francisco) Morning Call, thus a recollection or reconstruction rather than a contemporaneous record. Woodruff resigned from the San Francisco police in 1874 after testifying that he had kicked back $25 per month to a friend of the police chief for his lucrative beat, and then suddenly moved out of state when that man came to trial. Despite that pedigree, other authors cite the exchange from Dillon’s book as establishing the term “highbinders.” But there are less impeachable examples from the 1870s.

“Highbinders” remained in near-constant use for the next several decades, losing its scare-quotes, its hyphen, and its initial capital. Even today, the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of the word notes the specific link to Chinese criminals. But, as I discussed earlier, it actually came from the opposite coast, and an earlier conflict between natives and immigrants.

(The picture above is a page from Harper’s Weekly in 1886 showing “The Chinese Highbinders in San Francisco” and their “Favorite Weapons.”)

24 November 2023

“High-binders” Escape from New York

As I recounted here, the term “High-binder” or “hide-binder” appeared in the New York press in late 1806 and early 1807 after disturbances in the streets around Christmas.

At first it referred to a particular set of anti-Catholic rowdies. Soon it was being slapped on working-class Catholics instead.

In subsequent newspaper items, we can see the term spread outside of New York, though still tied to that place of origin. The 28 Apr 1813 Tickler of Philadelphia described the neighborhood of “Gotham, (New York,)” as: “Here the sailor, the ropemaker, the cookey boys and hide-binders resort to enjoy the jollifications…”

By the 1830s, “high-binder” had become the standard form, and the word was one of many labels for criminals:
  • “among the thieves and high-binders of the world” (Philadelphia Daily Chronicle, 19 Apr 1832)
  • “a posse of high-binders” (Newburyport Herald, 4 Aug 1835)
  • “a gang of high-binders, so called” (New-York Daily Express, 6 Jul 1837)
  • “the most desperate high-binders that ever graced a drunken revel upon the ‘Five Points’” (Hudson River Chronicle of Ossining, 27 Mar 1838)
  • “a set of ‘high-binders’” (Baltimore Sun, 16 Sept 1839)
Most newspaper editors were still setting the word off in some way to acknowledge it could be unfamiliar to readers.

In 1839, one newspaper near the Mason-Dixon Line used the term to headline an article about gamblers, both black and white (Baltimore Sun, 31 October). Another claimed that New York’s political “ultras” were adopting that label among others to seem even more scruffy and democratic (Alexandria Gazette, 5 November).

Over the following decade, Americans began using the word for corrupt politicians, not just street-level criminals. Among the rising literati, both Edgar Allan Poe and James Kirke Paulding revived the form “hide-binder” to show they were in the know. But the label was losing its power and starting to sound stale.

TOMORROW: High-binders head west.

(The picture above is George Catlin’s 1827 view of the Five Points neighborhood, now at the Met.)

22 November 2023

The First High-Binders

I’ve been reading about San Francisco before the big earthquake of 1906, and one word that comes up a lot is “highbinder.”

Merriam-Webster defines that as “a professional killer operating in the Chinese quarter of an American city,” or alternatively “a corrupt politician.”

There were plenty of corrupt politicians in Gilded-Age San Francisco, but in the newspapers of the time and in histories since the term “highbinder” definitely meant a thug of Chinese extraction.

I wondered what the etymology of that term was. What were those men binding, and how high? Was is something to do with queues, or Chinese dress?

It turned out the answer lies in the early 1800s, and it has nothing to do with Chinese-American culture at all.

The term surfaced in New York City at the end of 1806. The Evening-Post of 26 December reported on a riot the evening before this way:
There has for some time existed in this city, in and about George and Charlotte-Streets, a desperate association of lawless and unprincipled vagabonds, calling themselves High-binders, and which, during the last winter, produced several riots, making the demolition of houses of ill-fame the ostensible object of their disorderly practices.
The Weekly Inspector of 27 December stated:
On Christmas Eve, a party of banditti, amounting, it is stated, to forty or fifty members of an association, calling themselves High-binders, assembled in front of St. Peter’s Church, in Barclay-street, expecting that the Catholic ritual would be performed with a degree of pomp and splendor, which has usually been omitted in this city. These ceremonies, however, not taking place, the High-binders manifested great displeasure, but were at length prevailed on to disperse.
I should clarify that these original High-binders wanted to jeer at and disrupt a high Catholic ceremony inside St. Peter’s Church (shown above), not to participate. They were a Protestant, probably nativist gang.

The High-binders’ actions on Christmas Eve provoked counterattacks by Irishmen the next day. Those fights escalated until a town watchmen was killed. Although the police arrested only Irishmen at first, the Republican Watch-Tower of 6 Jan 1807 (misdated 1806 by its printer) said, “It is shrewdly suspected that the murderer will yet be found among the ruffians denominated high binders.”

The Bowery Boys site tells the story of the Christmas Riot of 1806 here.

On 24 Jan 1807, the American Citizen, another New York paper, reported on the trials arising from that violence. Its editors did their best to sort out the sides. They also stated that the correct term was “hide-binders,” for men working in the leather trade.

Within just a few months the May 1807 Weekly Inspector published this item at the end of a column:
An American bull.—An American, speaking of the turbulent conduct of the “hide-binders,” observed that these low Irishmen were so used to being hung, that they could not live without it.
Just five months before the High-binders had burst onto the New York scene by besieging a Catholic church and then brawling with its Irish defenders. Now the term had become a pejorative label slapped onto “low Irishmen” since apparently only they could be thugs.

COMING UP: Spreading out of New York.

17 November 2023

The Return of “The Fuzzy Ghost”

This week I received my contributor’s copy of The Big Book of Things That Go Bump in the Night: A Collection of Utah Horror.

This anthology of “27 stories, poems, and flash fiction pieces, all geared toward kids” is published by Timber Ghost Press and available here.

My story, “The Fuzzy Ghost,” is much older than its target audience. It’s a tale about a family coming to terms with the death of a relative, and I wrote the first version in the 1990s after the death of my own older brother, Al.

At one point I had interest in the story from a kids’ magazine company, but the editor of the magazine I’d submitted to thought it would work better for the next-younger audience. I wrote another version, half the length to fit the second magazine’s specs. But for a story that depends on mood, that took away too much, and the revision didn’t sell.

Back then, kids’ magazines were practically the only market for such short fiction, and they had very strict limits on word counts. Technology has made internet magazines, micro-press anthologies, and even story vending machines viable, and that in turn has opened up the specs for stories.

Last year, as I continued to process the death of my mother, I spotted Timber Ghost Press’s call for submissions. I dug the latest draft of “The Fuzzy Ghost” out of my hard drive, updated it with specific period details, and sent it in. And now it’s come back to me inside a paperback book.