Tuesday, January 07, 2020

The Ghosts of Eden Park by Karen Abbott

The Ghosts of Eden Park by Karen Abbott is a solid work of non-fiction subtitled The Bootleg King, the Women Who Pursued Him, and the Murder That Shocked Jazz-Age America and tells the story of George Remus, the aforementioned bootleg king and murderer of his wife Imogene.

It's noted that Prohibition allowed for liquor to be used for medicinal purposes, and Remus as a bootlegger would buy both distilleries and wholesale drug companies, bribe officials to obtain withdrawal permits to remove the whiskey, then hijack his own trucks and resell the liquor. By the summer of 1921, Remus owned 35% of all the liquor in the United States, with he and Imogene living in Cincinnati like royalty, throwing lavish parties including a New Year's Eve party that year which featured Remus giving $1,000 bills to each guest and a new car to every woman there.

Remus eventually is arrested for his crimes and while in prison, Imogene started an affair with Bureau of Investigation agent Franklin Dodge. The two of them siphoned off the family fortune and when Remus released from prison in April 1927, shortly after Imogene filed for divorce, he returned home to find the mansion emptied out.

Imogene almost certainly had attempted to enlist people to kill Remus and immediately prior to their divorce trial in October of that year, Remus shot and killed her. The remainder of the book is about the murder trial, with Remus defending himself based on plea of temporary insanity, and he often made huge scenes during the trial, wailing and sobbing uncontrollably. He was acquitted of the charge of murder, and then successfully argued that the insanity was in fact just temporary so neither went to prison for the murder nor was institutionalized. It was a compelling tale told well by Abbott and Remus as a character was written into the fictional HBO series Boardwalk Empire about whiskey running during Prohibition.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Longitude by Dava Sobel

Longitude by Dava Sobel is subtitled The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time and details the life of John Harrison and his clocks built between 1730 and 1770 that enabled sailors to determine their longitude and navigate more safely across the oceans.

The book notes how latitude and longitude originally plotted in A.D. 150 by the cartographer and astronomer Ptolemy, with latitude lines running the width of the globe and longitude lines from pole to pole. The parallel of latitude lines are based on the equator so fixed by nature, whereas meridian of longitude lines set from an arbitrary spot, for the past several hundred years Greenwich, England.

Sobel notes this difference in how the lines set made it so that sailors could fairly easily gauge their latitude by the sun and length of the day, enabling easy straight east to west travel or vice versa, but it was much more difficult to determine one's longitude.

The two ways to ascertain longitude at sea were via a lunar method, tracking against the stars, but this difficult to do effectively given cloudy nights and the amount of calculation required, and via keeping time aboard ship as well as the time at a separate place of known longitude. From this time difference, one could calculate the degrees traveled and know the location. The problem with this method was having a timepiece that worked as it should, with them rendered unreliable by changes in barometric pressure, temperature extremes, or simply rolling of the ship.

In response to this situation, English Parliament offered the Longitude Act of 1714, stipulating the award of a large monetary prize to anyone that could make possible the accurate determination of one's longitude while at sea. Sobel details how the aforementioned John Harrison accomplished this task via the timekeeping method, building over four decades five revolutionary chronometers, H-1 through H-5. Also noted in the book was how Harrison's had to contend with people who advocated for a lunar solution trying to thwart his superior effort.