Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Mule-Made Man...

What does a Texas mule have to do with helping to launch the careers of several entertainment icons? To answer that question, you need to know what happened in the east Texas town of Nacogdoches back in 1912. To read the account, check out my article over on the Western Fictioneers blog.


Thursday, May 9, 2019

After the Cattle Drives – The Impact of Upton Sinclair’s "The Jungle" on the Meatpacking Industry and Food Inspection

Cattle Drive - By Charles Marion Russell

The cattle industry in the latter half of the nineteenth century has provided almost unlimited fodder for those of us who write about the American West. Cattle drives, cowboys, ranches – where would we be without the vast amount of history, mythology, and folklore that these things provide for us. But there’s one aspect of the cattle industry that was very seldom written about. What happened to the cattle after they reached the cattle towns of Kansas, such as Abilene, Wichita, and Dodge City? What happened after they were loaded up into the boxcars of the freight trains and were shipped to the markets in the east?

Chances are pretty good that most of those cows wound up in the Union Stockyards, the center of the meatpacking district in Chicago. From the Civil War throughout the 1920s, more meat was processed in Chicago than in any other part of the world. But this half of the cattle industry was not nearly as exciting or romantic as the half with the cowboys and the cattle drives. This half was plagued by horrid and unsafe working conditions and grossly unsanitary meat processing practices. It was through the publication of a single book in 1906, The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, that these conditions and practices were brought to light.

The Jungle is a fictitious account of a Lithuanian immigrant who went to work in Chicago’s meatpacking industry. It first appeared in serialized form in the Socialist magazine Appeal to Reason in 1905 and was afterword collected into a book and published in 1906. It was an immediate and an international best-seller, eventually being published in dozens of languages and selling millions of copies.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the meatpacking industry in the United States was controlled by four major companies known as the “Big Four:” Amour, Swift, Morris, and National Packing. Chicago was one of the largest meatpacking centers in the country, with feedlots, stockyards, slaughterhouses, and packing plants all clustered together in an area known as Packingtown, on the south side of the city on former swampland.

In 1904, the union representing the meatpackers in Chicago went on strike to protest the working conditions and poor pay being received by the mostly immigrant workers who worked in Packingtown. The Big Four broke the strike by bringing in strike-breakers who kept the plants in operation.

Upton Sinclair, who was working as a writer for Appeal to Reason, was sent to Chicago to do a story on the strike and its impact on the workers. He spent seven weeks investigating the meatpacking plants and interviewing workers. He witnessed first-hand the grossly unsanitary and unsafe conditions that the workers had to endure. Not only did he report on the horrendous suffering of the workers, who were paid only pennies per hour and worked ten hour days, he also wrote about the sick and diseased animals that were slaughtered and turned into food, and about the unsanitary practices that took place. In one section of The Jungle he writes:  

Meat Packers in Chicago circa 1900
“The meat would be shoveled into carts and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one—there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit. There was no place for the men to wash their hands before they ate their dinner, and so they made a practice of washing them in the water that was to be ladled into the sausage. There were the butt-ends of smoked meat, and the scraps of corned beef, and all the odds and ends of the waste of the plants, that would be dumped into old barrels in the cellar and left there. Under the system of rigid economy which the packers enforced, there were some jobs that it only paid to do once in a long time, and among these was the cleaning out of the waste barrels. Every spring they did it, and in the barrels would be dirt and rust and old nails and stale water—and cartload after cartload of it would be taken up and dumped into the hoppers with fresh meat, and sent out to the public's breakfast.”

Another section of the book tells about how cattle in the stockyards were being fed “whiskey-malt” which was the refuse of the breweries. This caused the cattle to become covered in boils and abscesses which would burst open when a worker cut into them with his knife, spreading foul smelling puss all over the workers and the carcasses. There were no facilities provided for the workers to wash up, so people and carcasses alike would become contaminated.

Within a month of the book’s publication, the White House was receiving one hundred letters a day, demanding that the government do something to clean up the meat industry. After inviting Sinclair to the White House to discuss his book, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed a special commission to investigate Chicago’s slaughterhouses.

In May of 1906, the commission issued its report which confirmed the horrible conditions that Lewis had written about, and criticized the existing meat inspection laws that only required inspection of animals up to the time of slaughter. Many of these inspectors took bribes to look the other way, and if the inspector was honest, the meatpackers would wait until after hours, when the inspectors were not present, to slaughter the sick and dead cattle. In a letter to Congress, President Roosevelt urged that a law was needed that would, “…enable the inspectors of the Federal Government to inspect and supervise from the hoof to the can the preparation of the meat food product."

Congress went to work, and the following month, President Roosevelt signed into law two pieces of legislation which would guide food inspection to this present day: the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act.

Upton Sinclair
Probably not since Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin has a single work of fiction had such a profound impact on a nation.  Upton Sinclair’s work brought about legislation that vastly improved food safety and consumer confidence in America’s food supply and the food industry which feeds not only our own people but millions of people around the world.

The irony connected with The Jungle, and the thing that vexed Upton Sinclair at first, was that he had written it to bring to light the horrible condition of the workers at the meatpacking plants. His goal was to effect social change that would lead to higher pay, shorter hours, and a safer working environment. But what outraged the nation so much were the unsanitary conditions and the mislabeling of food, and not the plight of the workers. Sinclair quipped in frustration, “I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident, I hit it in the stomach.”

Upton Sinclair died in 1968 at the age of 90, one year after attending a White House ceremony to witness President Lyndon Johnson sign into law the Wholesome Meat Act, which amended the Meat Inspection Act of 1906. The new legislation required states to have inspection programs “equal to” that of the federal government. He authored close to one hundred books and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1943.


Monday, March 25, 2019

Twenty-Eight Things You Didn’t Know About Dances With Wolves

It was on this date twenty-eight years ago, March 25th, 1991, that Dances with Wolves won the Oscar for Best Picture at the 63rd Academy Award ceremonies, becoming only the second western film to earn that honor - the first being Cimarron (1931), directed by Wesley Ruggles. To honor the occasion, here are twenty-eight things that you didn’t know about Dances with Wolves:


Tuesday, March 12, 2019

They Died With Their Boots On - Movie Review

I recently watched the 1941 Warner Brothers classic, “They Died With Their Boots On,” starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. The Errol Flynn fan in me was delighted, but the historian in me screamed inwardly (and a couple of times outwardly) for 140 minutes straight.

There were some things that I enjoyed about the film. I did like the fact that they used actual Sioux Indians to play the part of Indians – although the role of Crazy Horse was played by Anthony Quinn, and my foot was tapping along with the rousing rendition of Garryowen (see the video below). The farewell scene between Custer and Libby was made even more poignant by the fact that both actors knew that this was going to be their last (of eight) films together.

However, the biggest problem I had with the myriad of historical inaccuracies was in Custer’s attitude going into the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The film depicted him as being sympathetic towards the Indians, and as going into battle knowing that he was sacrificing his regiment. There was nothing of his bravado and arrogance; nothing of his belief that the seventh cavalry could whip any number of Indians on any field of battle.

Garryowen - the regimental song of the 7th Cavalry 

Errol Flynn will always epitomize the swashbuckling hero, and any film of his is worth watching. We just have to keep in mind that Hollywood is all about producing movies to entertain, not documentaries to inform.

Monday, January 28, 2019

The Strange Journey of Elmer McCurdy – The Outlaw Who Wouldn’t Give Up

Elmer McCurdy
What do an Oklahoma bandit, a traveling carnival, Skeletor, and the Six Million Dollar Man have in common? To find out, you need to know the story of Elmer McCurdy, the bungling outlaw who wouldn’t be taken alive, and who had more success in death than he ever did in life.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

New Book Releases

Here is a look at my most recent releases over the past few months:

My story, An Hour Before the Hangman, came out in June and is included in this collection of stories published by Five Star Publishing and edited by Hazel Rumney. This anthology contains fourteen brand-new stories by award-winning authors such as Matthew P. Mayo, Johnny Boggs, and Michael Zimmer. Booklist had this to say about "The Trading Post and Other Frontier Stories"...

“This anthology of western stories runs the gamut from a cinematic saloon shootout to an O. Henry–esque gallows confession. Showcasing a wide range of narrative styles and levels of violence, this can be recommended to western readers looking for new authors or to anyone who thinks all westerns are the same.”

(Click here to find The Trading Post and Other Frontier Stories at Amazon) 

August saw the release of this anthology of micro-stories, "A Dark and Stormy Night," edited by Scott Harris and published by Dusty Saddle Publishing. My story, Demon Horse, is one of fifty-two stories by fifty-two different authors. Each author was given the same prompt: "It was a dark and stormy night," and their task was to build a story around the prompt. Their only instruction was that they had to do it in exactly 500 words. 

This is the second in a series of 500-word story anthologies that Scott Harris is doing, and I am honored to have been included in the previous edition, "The Shot Rang Out," as well as two future editions that will hopefully be released before the end of this year. The book is fast-paced because of the length of the stories, and they are as fun to read as they were to write.

(Click here to find A Dark and Stormy Night at Amazon)

This last book also came out in August, and I am honored to have my short story, Father Pedro's Prayer, included. "The Untamed West," edited by the award-winning author, L.J. Washburn, and published by Western Fictioneers, is a huge anthology of 570 pages containing twenty-nine new stories by classic Western authors - some of the very best in the business; authors like James Reasoner, Nik Morton, Douglas Hirt, McKendree Long, and Tom Rizzo. From the dusty plains of Texas to the big sky of Montana, The Untamed West will take you on a thrilling adventure across the deserts, plains, and mountains of the American West.

(Click here to find The Untamed West at Amazon)

I hope you will check out these new releases. You can also click on the menu tab at the top of this page that says "Visit my Amazon Page" to find these as well as some of my other books. Some of the other menu tabs above will tell you how to connect with me on Facebook and Twitter. Feel free to contact me. I would love to hear from you.