A spirited debate over the origins of the humble hamburger recently made national headlines. Texas state Rep. Betty Brown proposed a resolution naming Athens, Texas, the birthplace of the hamburger. But 89-year-old Ken Lassen Sr. of New Haven, Conn., is ready to take on the whole Lone Star State. He claims his grandfather invented the hamburger at Louis’ Lunch in 1900. As the story goes, grandfather Lassen grabbed a ground beef patty and shoved it between two slices of bread, which certainly meets the general criteria for a hamburger. But is it possible that someone in Texas could have had the same exact idea more than a decade earlier?
Actually, most food historians date the hamburger back to the early 19thcentury German town of, not coincidentally, Hamburg. It’s not known if the Germans put their patties on bread, and the debate rages on over whether it’s the beef or the bun that makes a burger. Meanwhile, the North and the South seem unlikely to reach an agreement anytime soon. New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. has pointed out that Texas also falsely takes credit for another New Haven original: 41st President George H.W. Bush.
New L.A. Home for Clayton Collection Artifacts
Over the course of 40 years, university librarian and researcher Dr. Mayme A. Clayton assembled one of the world’s largest collections of African-American historical materials, including some 30,000 rare books and 75,000 photographs. Under the auspices of The Western Black Research and Educational Center— founded by Clayton—the vast collection will be professionally conserved and cataloged when moved to a new home in the former Los Angeles Superior Court building in Culver City, Calif. Tragically, Clayton died less than 24 hours after the official announcement of the establishment of the new museum in October.
Among the collection’s most prized items is a signed copy of Phillis Wheatley’s 1773 Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral, which many consider the first book published in America by an author of African descent. Clayton also assembled the largest pre- 1959 black film collection in the world. In 1977 she helped launch the Black Talkies on Parade Film Festival, devoted to pioneering works by black actors and directors. In addition, she gathered more than 10,000 sound recordings from the turn of the 20th century.
The Western Black Research and Educational Center is currently seeking to raise $7 million to help fund relocating the collection. The PBS series History Detectives will air a one-hour special on Clayton’s collection this spring.
Man Finally Charged in 1964 Mississippi Murder Case
James Ford Seale, 71, was arrested in January in connection with the 1964 murders of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore in Meadville, Miss. In May 1964, Seale, a white police officer, allegedly offered a ride to the two African-American hitchhikers. Their bodies were found that summer in the Mississippi River near Tallulah, La., while law enforcement officials were searching for three civil rights workers who had disappeared from Philadelphia, Miss.
The FBI long suspected Seale and Charles Marcus Edwards, both reportedly members of the Ku Klux Klan, of severely beating the men and dumping them into the river to drown. At the time, however, the agency could not establish federal jurisdiction over the investigation. Seale disappeared and, in 2002, his family reported that he had died. But Moore’s brother, Thomas, and documentary filmmaker David Ridgen tracked Seale down two years later.
Seale is being held without bail on kidnapping charges. A tentative trial date was set for April.
Treasure in the Nation’s Attic
The Smithsonian on Demand television network launches this spring with Stories From the Vault, a six-part series hosted by actor Tom Cavanagh that gives viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the museum. Smithsonian shows will be offered as on-demand options to cable and satellite providers, and the network plans to begin high-definition broadcasts this fall.
In 2006 the Smithsonian signed a controversial 30-year deal with Showtime Networks that historians and other researchers fear will restrict access to the museum’s collections. Requests from documentary filmmakers, for example, who want to make extensive use of Smithsonian materials could be denied “unless the producer and the Smithsonian enter into a co-production arrangement on mutually agreeable commercial terms.” News and educational programming are exempt.
Complaints about the deal from the public and members of Congress led to a Government Accountability Office investigation. The GAO concluded that the contract did not violate any laws, and museum administrators say the deal is necessary to offset budget cuts made by Congress, which provides 75 percent of the Smithsonian’s annual budget. The Showtime contract, valued between $99 and $150 million, guarantees the Smithsonian $500,000 a year and 10 percent ownership of its television network.
Restore or Replace?
Historic preservationists in New Orleans are facing off against flood-ravaged residents to save historic houses that were wrecked by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Some homeowners, however, say they cannot afford to restore the properties to their prehurricane conditions and want to replace them with cheaper, modular structures. The New Orleans city government is the arbiter in these cases. City officials are weighing the importance of preserving historic houses, which play a key role in the city’s tourism efforts, and the pressing need for residents to have affordable housing.
As If Abe Didn’t Have Enough Problems
A recent study in The Journal of Cell Biology suggests Abraham Lincoln may have been plagued by ataxia, a genetic nervous disorder that afflicts many of his descendants. The nerve cell disorder affects the part of the brain that controls movement and coordination. Researchers suggest this could have been the cause of Lincoln’s “gangly walk,” described by many of his biographers.
Well, Have a Piece of Cake, Pardner
Marion Robert Morrison turns 100 on May 26. If he’d kept that name, maybe nobody would care. But in 1930, film director Raoul Walsh changed Morrison’s fortunes, rechristening him after colonial general “Mad Anthony” Wayne, and a star was born. Soon, John Wayne would be a household name.
The anniversary is being marked by parades, concerts and, of course, movies and commemorative products. A three-day celebration in Winterset, Iowa, includes groundbreaking for the new John Wayne Birthplace Museum and Learning Center.
A recent donation to the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library provides a rare glimpse into the precarious health of the 28th president. An estimated 10,000 documents from Dr. Cary T. Grayson, Wilson’s personal physician, were given to the library by the Grayson family.
Wilson’s debilitating stroke near the end of his second term is well-known to historians, but the president’s health problems may have begun much earlier than previously believed. In a 1915 letter to his wife, Grayson relates that Wilson “had an accident last night with one of his eyes….I am hurrying off to Philadelphia with him… tomorrow morning to consult an eye specialist. We are going by motor. I think we can make the trip less noticeable that way.”
The papers could yield additional clues about how the White House functioned during times of serious illness.
An amateur archaeologist in Virginia recently stumbled upon an incredible find: the earliest-known ironworks used by English colonists in the New World. In fact, the blast furnace ruins along Falling Creek in Chesterfield County may represent the oldest-known example of heavy industry in the nation. Records indicate that the Virginia Company of London, which sponsored the Jamestown settlement in 1607, built the furnace in 1619. While the existence of the ironworks was well documented, the discovery of the ruins was a total surprise. Heavy winter rain had cut a new channel along the creek, revealing the furnace ruins.
In February U.S. Army archaeologists based at Fort Eustis announced the discovery of a 17th-century English settlement known as Henrytowne. Located near Virginia Beach, the site is thought to be one of Jamestown’s satellite settlements. Earthworks about two miles from Henrytowne indicate the presence of a Chesepian Indian village. A replica of Henrytowne is being built and is scheduled to open in April.
Archaeologists in Walker, Minn., may have excavated some of the earliest artifacts ever discovered in North America. The archaeologists found about 50 items—including scrapers, choppers and a crude knife—beneath a layer of glacial deposits, suggesting the artifacts could be 13,000 to 15,000 years old. Other researchers doubt the artifacts’ age and authenticity. However, if they prove to be genuine, the discovery would provide additional evidence that human existence in what is now the United States predates the 11,200-year-old artifacts at Clovis, N.M., discovered in the 1930s. In January, construction workers in Albuquerque, N.M., accidentally destroyed a significant prehistoric site while excavating a water line for a new high school. In 2000 archaeologists had determined that the site provided the earliest evidence of the Folsom culture in the Albuquerque area, dating back about 10,000 years.
Originally published in the June 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.