Friday, June 26, 2009

John Philp Sousa and 'The Devil's March'

At the opening of the Twentieth Century, John Phillip Sousa was a famous man. The previous year he had represented the United States at the Paris Exposition, after which he embarked on a long tour of Europe. He was arguably the best-known American entertainer in the world and wherever he went he found that influential people were keen to meet him and introduce him as a friend.

July of 1901 found Sousa in London. As a guest at the Savile Club, Sousa was introduced to William Butler Yeats, the poet. Yeats was a member of the Savile, and like many of the Savile's members at the time he had a keen interest in the occult. Sousa also had a long-standing interest in Astrology and occult topics. In the free-wheeling company of the artists, writers and scientists who frequented the Savile, this interest briefly blossomed into a collaborative project between himself and Yeats.

Yeats believed sincerely in the practice of magic, and conducted various experiments in 'summoning spirits' which he believed would channel poetry or important messages through him. Yeats proposed to Sousa that they do the same with music.

They jointed conducted a series of seances in which they engaged in automatic writing. Yeats was charged with contacting the 'spirits' and channeling their responses through his hand, which was resting on the top of Sousa's head. Sousa, who was blindfolded, scribbled notes on sheet music during these sessions.

The result was a musical composition which Yeats formally titled 'A Hermetic Instruction in Sight,' although others invariably referred to the piece as 'The Devil's March.'

It was performed only once before a small, private audience at the Savile. Sousa himself is said to have played the trumpet for part of the performance, which included only a small number of the musicians of his usual big band. H. Rider Haggard described the piece as "... a terrifying, hypnotic sort of bugling and thunder."

Sir E. A. Wallis Budge stood up and left the room shortly after the performance began, later explaining that he was concerned for his female companion's sanity if she remained in the presence of such demonic noises any longer.

The stunned audience clapped politely and the Devil's March was never heard again. Sousa later told his son, John Philip Sousa, Jr, that he feared where the music might have actually come from and destroyed all of his copies of the score. Yeats was reported to possess copies, including the original transcriptions made during their seances. If a copy still exists, it has not been brought to the attention of modern musicologists.

The following year, Sousa wrote and published a novel entitled, 'The Fifth String.' It is the story of a man who receives a violin from the Devil. The violin makes enchanting music, but to play upon its unusual 5th string will cause the musician to die. Naturally, the protagonist eventually does exactly that and the devil gets his due in the end.

John Phillip Sousa lived a reasonably long life, dying of what appeared to be natural causes at the age of 77. The final disposition of his soul is, naturally, unknowable. But one wonders exactly what the price was for Sousa's Devil's March.

The Attempted Assassination of President James Buchanan

James Buchanan is most often remembered as the President who effectively allowed the southern states to form a Confederacy and leave the Union, setting the stage for a massive Civil War which would be waged and won by Abraham Lincoln, his successor. Few people today realize how close the country came to having the crisis of the firing on Fort Sumter handled by Vice President John C. Breckinridge instead of by Buchanan. Had the attempted assassination of Buchanan been a success, Breckinridge would have assumed the Presidency in 1859. A whole different set of decisions might have averted or delayed the Civil War.

By the end of the Utah War in 1858, Buchanan was universally despised among Mormons. What amounted to a series of misunderstandings led to the movement of about a third of the US army into Utah. There were few casualties during the war, but enormous loss of property occurred. Many Mormons were forced to abandon their farms and crops as Buchanan's army approached. One of those evacuees was Jacob Christofferson, whose wife became ill and died during their journey to central Utah. Even after peace was made, Christofferson held a deep grudge against the man whom everyone eventually agreed was responsible for the war.

On November 12th, 1859 President Buchanan walked between the White House and the Capitol building (the Secret Service was not created until 1865). Christoffersen approached him, attracting the attention of an aide. The man drew a Philadelphia deringer (similar to that later used by John Wilkes Booth to assinate Lincoln) and fired towards Buchanan's chest. Buchanan collapsed to the ground as Christoffersen ran away.

Little did Christoffersen guess that Buchanan was completely unharmed. Buchanan later said that he was "... quite startled at the report of the pistol and at the sensation of a blow to my chest," causing him to fall over. But the bullet failed to penetrate Buchanan's clothing and was found on the ground in perfect condition.

It is commonly thought that Christoffersen accidentally 'short-started' the bullet, failing to fully seat the wadding in front of the muzzle-loaded weapon. The ball would have rolled forward by a few millimeters, causing a gap between powder and ball that prevented the projectile from being propelled to proper velocity. This problem was common in handguns of the era, which might have been perfectly functional when first loaded but later jostled loose after being carried in a pocket for some time.

Christoffersen was found to have hanged himself in his room at a cheap boarding house that night. His face was identified by the aide who had accompanied Buchanan. It is not known whether the would-be assassin died believing that he had succeeded in killing the President.

The 'Long Winter' of 1883-1885

On June 5th of 1883, snow fell on New Orleans. It could no longer be denied that nature had failed America and winter had simply never gone away.

This was the beginning of the 'long winter', a mini ice age which would last almost 2 years in much of the northern hemisphere. Volcanic ash from a partial eruption believed to have taken place in Alaska spread across most of the continent in a hazy band that blocked out the sun. Noon was scarcely distinguishable from dawn and temperatures rarely climbed above the 50's. At night it was said that "a pail of water left on the porch would freeze solid by morning."

The impact on American society was deep and broad. Most crops failed. By September of 1883, grain prices were up over 500% versus the previous year. The only cereal grain to be consistently harvested was rye, which had been planted on less than 4% of all United States land in agricultural use. Settlers in the mid-west hitched their wagons up in droves and headed back east, often on the same Oregon Trail that they or their parents had gone west on.

With neither grain nor cattle to trade in, (which had mostly either starved or been slaughtered for lack of feed) Chicago became a virtual ghost town. The capital of the American west was reduced to stops by only a single train, twice weekly. Amazingly, construction continued on the world's first skyscraper. Most of the materials had already been purchased and even when there was no money to pay the workers they continued to show up for duty since there was literally no other work available.

Many of those farmers who remained would soon starve during the famine which occurred between autumn of 1883 and March of 1884. The acute stage of the famine ended when President Chester Arthur finally gave in to popular demand by agreeing to borrow money in order to purchase foreign grain to distribute for free in the areas that were worst hit. Funds were allocated in February and food aid was shipped west beginning early March. Arthur's National Recovery Office also distributed seed and information on how to plant rye as a new crop that would be more likely to survive the regular nightly freezes.

Potatoes, cabbages and rye quickly became the staple foods of not only the mid-west but also the urban centers on the east coast. At first international shipping had boomed as a result of the famine. Merchant ships brought large cargoes of foreign grain for a hungry nation that could no longer feed its self. But the money for such expensive imports disappeared after a boom of roughly 6 months. Americans began looking for new types of food that could be produced closer to home for less money.

Cabbages were planted everywhere. The plant's hardy resistance to cold made it an obvious choice for growing emergency food. Horses were slaughtered in order to use their pastures for cabbage fields. People grew cabbages in front gardens, along roadsides and on any patch of dirt available. Including the lawn in front of the US Capitol in Washington DC.

Deeply in debt and with a population reduced by 15%, America finally emerged from 'The Long Winter' in the spring of 1885. As suddenly as it had come, the dust and ash from the distant volcano disappeared. This resulted in a brief famine of its own, because of the failure of the cold weather dependent crops that American farmers and households had switched to. It would be years before the country returned to anything like normalcy and the federal debt taken on to feed the public only snowballed, arguably leading to the economic upheaval that would follow in the late 1880's.