Monday, July 7, 2008

The good old days

One often hears how the world has gone to hell in a handbag. Certainly, living in St. Louis, rightly known as Murder City, it's possible to believe that.

When I last lived in the city itself, off South Grand at Michigan and Arsenal, I often heard gunfire at night and once saw a person I would describe as a child sauntering down the street carrying an assault rifle. On a recent visit to the near South Side, for a 52nd City release party, I heard a short round of gunfire while traveling south on Jefferson, and then saw a young man holding up a big, nasty pistol and waving it, standing on Cherokee Street.

And it's much worse on the North Side, as the statistics and testimony of many friends attest.

I don't take much consolation from this fact, but a little traveling in history quickly shows that it has always been pretty bad out there. I remember reading about (and teaching) the struggle by the unfortunately forgotten James Weldon Johnson and others to get the federal government to prosecute all of the lynchings the Southern states were letting slide.

To travel across the pond and to the other historical side of colonialism and slavery (two epochs that were far bloodier than any 21st century Saturday night in North St. Louis), life sure was rough in early modern England. I was writing a dissertation on the English prose of the 1590s when I ran away from graduate school to join the circus of a traveling rock band, and I
dip back into the old field of study with pleasure, from time to time. I'm on a Renaissance English reading jag right now, plowing through David Starkey's snappily written history books about the Tudor kings and queens. I recommend Six Wives, his book about the most unfortunate brides of Henry VIII, to anyone who thinks their marriage or spouse has problems. Compared to Henry's headless wives, we all have it pretty good.

Now I am working through one of Starkey's earlier books about Elizabeth I, whom we think of us Shakespeare's queen, and who presided over a relatively peaceful and bloodless period of English history. I am just at the part where Elizabeth's brother, Edward VI, has died young, and the throne has passed (according to Henry's wishes and will) to Mary Tudor, aka Bloody Mary. This starts to get into the whole Catholic vs. Protestant thing, which makes the eyes of your average American glaze over with a big WTF? Suffice it to say that European Christians had terrorism and persecution perfected long before Barack Obama tried on a head wrap during a visit to his father's native soil.

Assuming your eyes glazed over during history class, too, I'll get you up to speed. Henry VIII managed to boot the pope out of the hierarchy of the English church for no better reason than because he wanted to get divorced from Catherine of Aragon so he could marry the coquettish Anne Boleyn. (Neither Eliot Spitzer nor Bill Clinton invented the phenomenon of a powerful man leading with his libido, rather than his mind and soul.) Thus, the Reformation: so Henry could get laid (and Anne did manage to hold out, almost until their wedding night, which was unheard of, given that "it's good to be the king").

Mary Tudor was Henry's daughter by the Spanish and very Catholic Catherine of Aragon, the dumpy queen Henry was trying to get away from and into Anne Boleyn's girdle. Mary stayed highly Catholic after her dad the king dumped both her mom the queen and the pope. After her dad and then her brother Edward died and the crown passed to Mary, it looked safe to be Catholic in England again, which means of course it was time for a Protestant uprising. Let's go kill some Catholics, starting with the queen!

The only way to organize an uprising under a monarchy is to have the new king or queen waiting in the wings with a convincing claim to the throne. In this case, Elizabeth I, the little sister of Mary and daughter of (the since-beheaded) Anne Boleyn, was next in line, as spelled out by Henry (and Parliament) before he died. Several segments of the Protestant nobility took up arms. They didn't get it done. Their leadership was tried and brutally executed. Elizabeth I was investigated in The Tower, which tripled as royal residence, dungeon and execution central. David Starkey thinks she was completely in on the conspiracy, but she wriggled off the hook.

Sheesh, now I finally come to the image that got me started here. I woke up thinking about Elizabeth being led out of London to her light-weight palace imprisonment in the 'burbs. Mary's henchmen were still in the business of publicly snuffing out rebels to advertise what a very bad idea it is to stage a revolution against the queen. Starkey lets drop, very casually, that there was a gallows standing at every gate to the city and at every crossroads, with one or more rebel (or one or more innocent person getting royally screwed - literally) hanging up to die.

Just think about that one. At every exit to your city, and every major cross street, there is one or more hanged, dying or dead man. One or more public lynching. The good old days were not so good.


Stefene said...

Plus, there was cholera and all number of other nasty things, one cursory read of a descrip of Choteau's Pond back in the day - brr! Awful stuff. But still, gotta keep working to make today better too, cholera or no cholera.

Matt said...

certainly there are too many murders in the city, but I'm skeptical of calling it 'murder city.' I've lived in the south grand and near south side areas for 12 years and have never seen anyone with a gun in their hand and have rarely heard gunshots. I've also never been mugged, threatened or robbed and my car has never been touched. I realize that the city can be dangerous though -- kind of like any city worth living in!