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Posts Tagged ‘Credit Mobilier’

White Elephant

Posted by Admin on March 24, 2014

If you have a white elephant, what you’ve got is a valuable but burdensome possession you just can’t unload (no matter how much or little you’re asking for it) that’s costing you an arm and a leg to keep.

In the book, “Marjorie Daw, and Other Stories” by Thomas Bailey Aldrich (published in 1969 as a reprint from the 1885 edition), the story, “A Rivermouth Romance” made great use of the idiom.

If Margaret Callaghan, when she meditated matrimony, indulged in any roseate dreams, they were quickly put to flight. She suddenly found herself dispossessed of a quiet, comfortable home, and face to face with the fact that she had a white elephant on her hands. It is not likely that Mr. O’Rourke assumed precisely the shape of a white elephant to her mental vision; but he was as useless and cumbersome and unmanageable as one.

It was indeed an idiom that was understood as it was used by Reader Charles (1814 – 1884) in his book “The White Elephantthat was published the year he died. The first chapter of the book began with this:

In the month of April 1828, Mr. Yates, theatrical manager found his nightly receipts fall below his nightly expenses. In this situation a manager falls upon one of two things — a spectacle or a star. Mr. Yates preferred the latter, and went of to Paris and engaged Mademoiselle Djek.

Mademoiselle Djek was a White Elephant of great size and unparallele sagacity. She had been for some time performing in a play at Fransconi’s, and created a great sensation in Paris.

In Volume 12 of “The Friend Religious and Literary Magazine” edited by Robert Smith and published in 1938, the story entitled, “Court Of Siam” was included. Written by John Crawford, it was originally published ten years earlier under the title of “Journal of an Embassy from the Governor-General of India to the Courts of Siam and Cochin China” and was dated April 8, 1822.

Upon enquiring into their history, we found that they were all either from the kingdom of Lao or Kamboja, and none from Siam itself, nor from Malay countries tributary to it, which last, indeed had never been known to afford a white elephant.

The rareness of the white elephant is, no doubt, the original of the consideration in which it is held. The countries in which it is found, and in which, indeed, the elephant in general exists in the greatest perfection and is most regarded, are those in which the worship of Buddha and the doctrine of the metempsychosis prevail.

Kings were usually the only ones able to afford white elephants as the upkeep for an elephant is an expensive undertaking for anyone, even a king. But if a king was displeased by a member of his court, the gift of a white elephant, while being a great honor, was also intended as a punishment in that the financial burden crippled the households of those with inferior monetary revenues and assets.

Between 1839 and 1873 — when a Letter to the Editor was published in the New York Times edition of May 28th — the term white elephant became known as a situation or an item that was costly. In the case of the Letter to the Editor, the white elephant in question had to do with the case of George Francis Train (24 March 1829 – 5 January 1904) that had been dragging on in the courts for months by that time.   Train had been charged with “issuing obscene publications.

Now, Train was not unknown to the American public. In fact, he was a well-known American entrepreneur who had been instrumental in establishing Credit Mobilier in the United States in 1864 as the Transcontinential Railroad was being built, and he had already made his name as a Civil War reporter.  The year his fortune was built by Credit Mobilier was the same year he began referring to himself as “Citizen Train.” He ran as an independent candidate for the office of President in 1872, and in 1873, he began charging admission fees to his campaign rallies where his primary focus was on attaining the position of Dictator of the United States.

Initially, the attempt was to have Mr. Train committed to an insane asylum, but on March 20, 1873 the following was reported:

Dr. Hammond, one of those commissioned by District Attorney Phelps to examine into his mental condition, says, with some reluctance, that the commission found Train to be a man of good education, of brilliant intellect, but undoubtedly of unsound mind. When, however, the usual form of commitment was presented for signature, Dr. Hammond refused to sign it, as he does not believe that Train can at all be considered a person dangerous or likely to do bodily harm either to himself or anybody else. The usual commitment will not be signed, and, of course, he cannot be transferred to the asylum. His latest assertion is that in thirty days not one stone in the bastile shall be left standing on another, and that the streets ot Sew York are to run with blood. Should this come to pass he may be dangerous enough, but his assertions are regarded only as idle words.

Six weeks later, it was reported on May 7, 1873 that the previous day the courts had ruled as follows:

The investigation which has been going on for the past few weeks before Chief Justice Daly and the Sherriff’s jury into the mental condition of George Francis Train was concluded this evening by a verdict rendered that he was, and is, sane and responsible for his acts. The District Attorney will now prosecute Train on the indictment found against him for publishing obscene literature in connection with the Woodhull-Ciaflin matter.

But the author of the Letter to the Editor, whose patience seemed to have reached an end, stated his opinion succinctly, writing:

For months the Courts have been trying to get rid of this dreadful person, but in vain. . . . In the meantime he is in the public hands, a white elephant of prodigious expensiveness in judicial time, patience and dignity.

In early 1864, and just weeks after the Gettysburg Address of November 1863, as the Civil War raged on, Ward Hill Lamon wrote about a discussion he had with Abraham Lincoln.

Jumping up from his reclining position he advanced, saying: “You know better than any man living that from my boyhood up my ambition was to be President. I am President of one part of this divided country at least; but you look at me! I wish I had never been born! It is a white elephant on my hands, and hard to manage. With a fire in my front and rear; having to contend with the jealousies of the military commanders, and not receiving that cordial co-operation and support from Congress which could reasonably be expected; with an active and formidable enemy in the field threatening the very life-blood of the government — my position is anything but a bed of roses.”

And it’s known that Belle Boyd — the famous Confederate spy who, when she was arrested and taken to General Patterson‘s headquarters for having shot a Union soldier for insulting her mother — was quoted in the Northern papers as saying that “like a white elephant” she was pointed out to thousands of troops coming into Virginia as being the most dangerous Rebel in the country.

Back in 1851, Geraldine Endsor (G.E.) Jewbury used the expression in “Letters.”

His services are like so many white elephants, of which nobody can make use, and yet that drain one’s gratitude, if indeed one does not feel bankrupt.

What is known about the idiom is that just about 40 years earlier, the idiom white elephant had positive connotations. In fact, Josef Semmelweiss (1788 – 1846) opened a wholesale business specializing in spices and general consumer goods in 1806 and named it zum Weißen Elefanten (at the White Elephant). By 1810, the business had made Josef Semmelweiss a rich man.

NOTE: Josef Semmelweiss was the father of Ignaz Semmelweis (1 July 1818 – 13 August 1865) who is regarded as the pioneer of antiseptic policy and prevention of nosocomial disease.

Somewhere in the forty or so years between the establishing of Josef Semmelweiss’ successful business where the idiom white elephant had a positive association and G.E. Jewbury’s use of the idiom which had a negative association, the shift in perception happened. Without proof of an earlier published reference, however, Idiomation is unable to take this idiom back any further than this point.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Pan Out

Posted by Admin on February 22, 2011

When something “pans out” the speaker means that the situation worked out well for those involved.

On October 13, 1953, in a very quick article in the bottom left hand corner of Page 16 of the Spokane Daily Chronicle under the heading “How Things Pan Out” the newspaper reported:

Catherine Hunter, head of the University of Tulsa’s homemaking department, says being handy with a skillet is still the best way to trap a man, and she has figures to prove it.  Out of 105 who have majored in home economics at the school in the last five years, 103 are married, one is engaged and the other is teaching home economics, says Hunter.

As the Great Depression neared its end and WWII was just a couple of years away, the Portsmouth Times in Ohio ran a story entitled, “Figuring Out The Budget.”  It read in part:

It is a tragic thing that a president like Mr. Roosevelt, who has the best intentions in the world, should be forced to make estimates that do not pan out.  It shows that the people around the President are too inclined to hide from him the true story of the depressing effects of the administration’s own policies on the business situation and are too prone to give him rosey estimates of what a tax rate will produce just because they are enamored of some new tax device.

A generation before that, Michigan’s Ludington Record ran an article on February 15, 1900 entitled, “Undoing of a Bunko Sharp.”  The article had to do with $5,000, John Kasser of the Live Oak Copper Mining and Smelting Company, a visit to New York City and 2 bunko steerers.  The newspaper reported:

The pair invested a little cash and considerable time and trouble in Mr. Kasser, and, though he didn’t pan out, they still have cause for thankfulness that they are alive, though battered … … When a Sun reporter saw Mr. Kasser the other day and asked him about his adventure, that gentleman rubbed his chin and said he shouldn’t think a little thing like that would be of any interest in a big city like New York.

“I have got a little property of my own,” said he, “not very much, but a little; and I suppose those two thought they could get $5,000 or $6,000 out of me.  I am a simple-minded western man,” he added, and paused, contemplatively.  “A simple-minded western man but,” he concluded, smiling benignantly at the toe of his right boot, “I have been in New York before.”

The Detroit Free Press ran “A Change Of Tactics” in the January 29, 1873 that had to do with the Credit Mobilier investigation.  It read in part:

It is quite clear that the Credit Mobilier investigation does not — to use a mining phrase — “pan out” to the satisfaction of the Republican party.  Vigorously opposing investigation at first, it demanded by its organs that a mere campaign slander should not be lifted into the important of serious charge.

The reference to the phrase “pan out” being a mining phrase is one of the first indications that the phrase actually alluded to washing gold from gravel in a pan.

Back on October 25, 1873, the New York Times reported on gold mining the San Juan mining region with article entitled, “South-Western Colorado: The San Juan Treaty and the Country It Relates To.”

The excitement in the Winter of 1860 sent a swarm in, built a town, brought on stocks of goods, and laid out great plans.  But there was shortly a stampede, and men came out worse “broke” than the Pike’s Peakers of ’59.  The leader of the party barely escaped hanging at the hands of the disappointed rabble.  He plead his own cause, however before the miners’ court, and contended that he had not overrated the mineral wealth of the country.  He insisted that on the very spot where they sat they could “pan out” gold better than he had ever represented.  Immediately a miner’s pan was called for, and the experiment results in fifty cents worth of the golden dust.  It saved Baker’s life.  But confidence in the capacity of the region did not return, and it was deserted.

Just a few years before that news report, the Denver Gazette ran a story entitled, “Good Mining Prospects: The Gulches More Profitable Than Ever.”  It was an exciting story that stated:

The minds of Cash Creek in Lake, Fairplay and Tarryall, in Park, and the numerous gulches in Summit County, are rich enough to pay thousands for working them, and no better inducement can be offered to a poor man, who is ambitious to mine without the outlay of capital necessary to work a lode, than to spend his labor for a season in a good gulch, where he has nothing to learn but to shovel dirt into a sluice and pan out his shining wages every Saturday night, without any of the mysterious manipulations of crushing, desulphurizing, triturating, amalgamating, retorting and other learned processes with unpronounceable names, in order to get at the substances of oxides, pyrites and sulphurets of greenbacks.

Ultimately, however, the term “pan out” came about as a result of the California Gold Rush of 1849 where the term was recognized and understood by every miner and want-to-be miner hoping to make their fortune prospecting for gold.

Here’s how prospectors mined for gold during the Gold Rush.  First, they would swirl a mix of dirt and water around the pan.  Because gold is dense, with a little skill, the pan could be swirled at just the right speed and angle to allow the gold to settle to the bottom of the pan.  At the same time, dirt would wash over the side of the pan. The prospector would continue in this fashion until there was nothing left in the pan except gravel and, with luck, little specks of gold … if everything “panned out!”

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Slow As Molasses In January

Posted by Admin on January 6, 2011

It was a balmy 43 degrees Fahrenheit (6 degrees Celsius) in Boston when the Great Molasses Flood happened on Wednesday, January 15, 1919 .  On that day, the low-lying section of Commercial Street between Copps Hill and North End Park was flooded by the contents of  a 58-foot tank that had contained no less than 2.5 million gallons of molasses .  The container stood just behind the Boston and Worcester freight terminal. 

When the tank split wide open at around 12:30 p.m. that day, a 30-foot tidal wave of molasses tore the steel supports off the nearby elevated train structure.  In the end, it was determined that the molasses of the Great Molasses Flood ran at between 25 and 30 mph (40 to 48 kph).

That being said, the expression “slow as molasses in January” is an Americanism for someone or something that is painfully slow. Due to the high viscosity of commonly available molasses at room temperature, the liquid pours quite slowly. 

In the 1941 movie Gone with the Wind,  Scarlett O’Hara chides Prissy  for being as “slow as molasses in January.”

In the King Vidor movie Hallelujah released in August of 1929, you hear “You’re slower than cold molasses in winter time” just over an hour into the movie.

Thirty-four years before that, John Adrian wrote a piece for the Detroit Free Press on July 11, 1886 that discussed Milwaukee (WI) in a 182-word article. His words certainly painted quite the picture of Milwaukee in 1886!  Part of his review included:

The city is also noted as being somewhat of a slow town. While we brand the villain who says so, we must admit that its street cars are slower than molasses in winter and are as scarce as hen’s teeth.

And 14 years before that review, the Chicago Daily Tribune ran a story on December 28, 1872 about the secret investigation of the Credit Mobilier scandal.  The newspaper reported that:

Most of them had the matter under advisement for seven or eight months before they could satisfy their consciences as to the moral bearing of the transaction, showing that the average Congressional perception of right and wrong is much slower than molasses in January.

In the records of the Supreme Court of Louisiana, there is a case dealing specifically with molasses in the month of January in 1840.

That defendant’s molasses was contained in two cisterns, a large and a small one; that in December 1839, Stansberry, the overseer, told defendant that if something was not done with the molasses it would be lost, because the large cistern, which was under ground, would not stand the pressure upon it, being nearly full.  To this the defendant answered, that he was waiting for the plaintiff to send him some casks, and was expecting them daily.  A few days after, in the beginning of January, a message was brought to the defendant and the overseer, that the cistern had bursted and was leaking.  On reaching the sugar house they found that the large cistern had given way, that the molasses was oozing out of the cistern, and the water outside, running from above.

While there is still no printed reference to being “slow as molasses in January” in 1840, one can determine from how the case was argued that the molasses that leaked out of the cistern in January did so very slowly. 

Somewhere between 1840 and 1872, the expression “slow as molasses in January” became part of the English language.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »