Archive for June, 2016


teen bullies


Teen bullies and their victims both face a higher risk of suicide

by Alison Kodjak, National Public Radio

June 28, 2016

Bullying and cyberbullying are major risk factors for teen suicide. And both the bullies and their victims are at risk.

That’s according to a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics that urges pediatricians and family doctors to routinely screen teenagers for suicide risks.

“Pediatricians need to be aware of the problem overall,” says Benjamin Shain, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and lead author of the report published online Monday in the journal Pediatrics. “They should be screening for things like mood disorders, substance abuse as well as bullying.”

Suicide is the number two cause of death of teenagers, after accidents including car crashes and accidental overdoses. The leading methods of suicide were suffocation and guns.

A CDC survey last year found that 17% of teens in high school said they had seriously considered suicide in the previous 12 months, and 2.7% had made an attempt that resulted in an injury.

Shain calls those numbers “phenomenal.”

The AAP report says there is a clear relationship between bullying and suicide thoughts and attempts.

Suicidal ideation and behavior were increased in victims and bullies and were highest in people who were both bullies and victims of bullying, the report says.

And cyberbullying increased suicide attempts as much as face-to-face bullying.

Shain tells Shots that online bullying is particularly damaging because it’s hard for the victim to get away from it.

“It’s in black and white, you can see it, everyone else can see it, it doesn’t go away,” he says. “You’re not safe in your own house.”

The report recommends doctors talk with teens directly about suicide risk factors, including bullying, drug and alcohol abuse, mood disorders and physical or sexual abuse.

The report includes suggested dialog and questions for doctors to ask their teenage patients and said the children should be interviewed alone, away from their parents.

“Physicians, including pediatricians, can play a critical role in identifying mental health conditions and in preventing suicide,” Dr. Christine Moutier, chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said in a statement.

She recommends that doctors get training in how to identify teens who may be thinking of killing themselves.

Beyond bullying, the effect of the Internet on suicide risk was mixed. The report found that teenagers who spend more than five hours a day online are a greater risk of trying to kill themselves.

But the the Web provides a cushion of sorts, too.

Teens who search the term “suicide” online are much more likely to find information on suicide prevention, help lines and other support than web sites that support or describe suicide, the report found.


Alison Fitzgerald Kodjak is a health policy correspondent on NPR’s Science Desk.



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modern slavery


Corporate America has a secret slave labor force

by Jeff Spross, The Week
June 20, 2016

What if I told you there was an army of workers in this country, probably over 2 million strong, that is forced to work for next to nothing? If they’re lucky, these workers get 40 cents an hour. They get no Social Security benefits, no workers’ compensation insurance, and certainly no overtime. They often are threatened with punishment if they refuse these terms.

You’d probably say that this system sounds akin to slavery. And you wouldn’t be wrong.

But this is also the reality of America’s federal, state, and local prison system.

When Congress put inmate work programs in place in 1979, the goal was giving people in prison marketable skills to help them reintegrate into society. But as state governments also climbed on board with their own programs, and the private prison industry boomed, inmate work programs have turned into a massive supply of incredibly cheap and involuntary labor at one time or another in the last few years for everyone from Walmart to McDonald’s to Victoria’s Secret to the US military. Even Whole Foods’ cheese was produced by prison labor, until public outcry shut it down.

There are more than 2.2 million people in the US federal, state, and local prison systems. Most of them are required to work in some capacity, and can face consequences including solitary confinement if they don’t. American jurisprudence has generally decided that these prisoners do not count as “employees” under such statutes as the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act, so they get no protection from those laws. Pay varies, but 12 to 40 cents an hour appears to be the norm in most federal prisons. In some places, the incarcerated workers aren’t paid anything.

Roughly 6% of state prisoners and 16% of federal prisoners are held and put to work by private prison companies. But many state governments have discovered that they can put their inmates to work themselves providing various goods and services, and use the profits to offset their budgets.

In 1963, for instance, the Lone Star State created Texas Correctional Industries (TCI), which is run by an appointed board. On its website, TCI boasts of producing “garments and cloth products, janitorial supplies, laundry supplies, name plates and easels, park equipment, stainless steel security fixtures and food service equipment, school bus renovation services, tire repairs and retreading,” and much, much more. Its sales were almost $90 million in 2014. The Texas prisoners themselves say—and reporting by The Intercept backs them up—that they aren’t paid a dime for any of this.

There are also “joint venture programs,” in which private businesses partner with state governments to employ inmates. Arizona Correctional Industries, for example, uses inmate labor to staff call centers and run print shops, among other things. They claim they provided 2 million labor hours in 2015 alone.

All told, at least 37 states have legalized contracting out prison labor to private companies in some form. There are far too many corporations to list, but IBM, Boeing, Microsoft, AT&T, Macy’s, and plenty of others all participated in some form in the past.

This arrangement is highly attractive to both governments and private businesses. And it’s not crazy to argue that the incentive to expand the supply of super-cheap and involuntary labor is a big driver of America’s increase in convictions and sentencing length for minor offenses.

Of course, there is resistance to squeezing free labor out of prisoners. And it’s coming from the inmates themselves.

Inmates at seven prisons across Texas went on strike in April to combat dismal living conditions and the exploitative terms of their work. Their demands included allowing their work time to count towards parole, repeal of the $100 copay they have to fork over for medical treatment, better living conditions, and a new oversight committee to do surprise inspections of Texas prisons. There have been other strikes in recent years in Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia, California, and Alabama. The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee aims to unionize the American prison population. And there are plans for another round of coordinated strikes coming in September, in Ohio, Mississippi, Virginia, and Alabama.

There’s actually a long, cyclical history of American prisons being used as labor pools, particularly as a kind of de facto replacement for slavery following formal abolition in 1865. As plenty of reports have noted, it’s hard to miss the similarities between the work many current-day prisoners are subjected to and the planation slavery of the Old South.

The 13th Amendment, which banned slavery and involuntary servitude, included the caveat “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” But the inmates who protested in Texas made what should be the obvious point that neither they nor anyone else ever gets sentenced to servitude. Their imprisonment is itself their punishment and the manner by which they pay their debt to society.

“[The Texas Department of Criminal Justice] has taken upon itself the authority of punishing prisoners with slavery on top of their sentences, violating therefore, their Human and Constitutional Rights” the Texas inmates wrote in a letter explaining their strike.

That logic seems hard to contest.


Jeff Spross is the economics and business correspondent at



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doughnut holes

cop exercizing.

In an effort to become just a little bit more cop-friendly, I have decided to answer today a question which may have occurred to some curious members of the law enforcement community: “How was the doughnut hole invented?”

According to Smithsonian Magazine, in the mid-19th century, Elizabeth Gregory was a New England ship captain’s mother who made a deep-fried dough that included her son’s spice cargo of nutmeg and cinnamon, along with lemon rind. Some say she made it so her son and his crew could store a pastry on long voyages to help ward off scurvy and colds. Mrs. Gregory put hazelnuts or walnuts in the center, where the dough usually did not cook through, and in a literal-minded way she called them doughnuts.

Her son always claimed credit for putting the hole in the doughnut.

Some doughnut historians claim that Captain Gregory first came up with the idea to eliminate the uncooked centers. Cynical historians say that Gregory did it to stint on ingredients; others that he thought the hole might make the whole easier to digest. Still others say that he gave the doughnut its shape when, needing to keep both hands on the wheel in a storm, he skewered one of his mom’s doughnuts on a spoke of his ship’s wheel.

In an interview with the Boston Post at the turn of the century, Captain Gregory recalled the moment 50 years before: using the top of a round tin pepper box, he said, he cut into the middle of a doughnut “the first doughnut hole ever seen by mortal eyes.”




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rip bill cunningham

I never knew about this man until I viewed a documentary about him sometime in the last year. His life was so extraordinary in a simple way, I am devoting this post to his memory. It is the least I can do.



Bill Cunningham, Legendary Times Fashion Photographer, Dies at 87

by Jacob Bernstein, The New York Times

June 25, 2016

Bill Cunningham, who turned fashion photography into his own branch of cultural anthropology on the streets of New York, chronicling an era’s ever-changing social scene for The New York Times by training his busily observant lens on what people wore—stylishly, flamboyantly or just plain sensibly—died on Saturday in Manhattan. He was 87.

His death was confirmed by The Times. He had been hospitalized recently after having a stroke.

Mr. Cunningham was such a singular presence in the city that, in 2009, he was designated a living landmark. And he was an easy one to spot, riding his bicycle through Midtown, where he did most of his field work: his bony-thin frame draped in his utilitarian blue French worker’s jacket, khaki pants and black sneakers (he himself was no one’s idea of a fashion plate), with his 35-millimeter camera slung around his neck, ever at the ready for the next fashion statement to come around the corner.

Nothing escaped his notice: not the fanny packs, not the Birkin bags, not the gingham shirts, not the fluorescent biker shorts.

In his nearly 40 years working for The Times, Mr. Cunningham snapped away at changing dress habits to chart the broader shift away from formality and toward something more diffuse and individualistic.

At the Pierre hotel on the East Side of Manhattan, he pointed his camera at tweed-wearing blue-blood New Yorkers with names like Rockefeller and Vanderbilt. Downtown, by the piers, he clicked away at crop-top-wearing Voguers. Up in Harlem, he jumped off his bicycle—he rode more than 30 over the years, replacing one after another as they were wrecked or stolen—for B-boys in low-slung jeans.

In the process, he turned into something of a celebrity himself.

In 2008, Mr. Cunningham went to Paris, where the French government bestowed him with the Legion of Honor. In New York, he was celebrated at Bergdorf Goodman, where a life-size mannequin of him was installed in the window.

It was the New York Landmarks Conservancy that made him a living landmark in 2009, the same year The New Yorker, in a profile, described his On the Street and Evening Hours columns as the city’s unofficial yearbook: “an exuberant, sometimes retroactively embarrassing chronicle of the way we looked.”

In 2010, a documentary, “Bill Cunningham New York,” premiered at the Museum of Modern Art to glowing reviews.

Yet Mr. Cunningham told nearly anyone who asked about it that the attendant publicity was a total hassle, a reason for strangers to approach and bother him.

He wanted to find subjects, not be the subject. He wanted to observe, rather than be observed. Asceticism was a hallmark of his brand.

He didn’t go to the movies. He didn’t own a television. He ate breakfast nearly every day at the Stage Star Deli on West 55th Street, where a cup of coffee and a sausage, egg and cheese could be had, until very recently, for under $3. He lived until 2010 in a studio above Carnegie Hall amid rows and rows of file cabinets, where he kept all of his negatives. He slept on a single-size cot, showered in a shared bathroom and, when he was asked why he spent years ripping up checks from magazines like Details (which he helped Annie Flanders launch in 1982), he said: “Money’s the cheapest thing. Liberty and freedom is the most expensive.”

Although he sometimes photographed upward of 20 gala events a week, he never sat down for dinner at any of them and would wave away people who walked up to him to inquire whether he would at least like a glass of water.

Instead, he stood off to the side photographing women like Annette de la Renta and Mercedes Bass in their beaded gowns and tweed suits. As Anna Wintour put it in the documentary about Mr. Cunningham, “I’ve said many times, ‘We all get dressed for Bill.’”

Mr. Cunningham’s position as a perennial outsider among a set of consummate insiders was part of what made him uniquely well suited to The Times.

“His company was sought after by the fashion world’s rich and powerful, yet he remained one of the kindest, most gentle and humble people I have ever met,” said Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., The Times’s publisher and chairman. “We have lost a legend, and I am personally heartbroken to have lost a friend.”

Dean Baquet, The Times’s executive editor, said: “He was a hugely ethical journalist. And he was incredibly open-minded about fashion. To see a Bill Cunningham street spread was to see all of New York. Young people. Brown people. People who spent fortunes on fashion and people who just had a strut and knew how to put an outfit together out of what they had and what they found.”

Michele McNally, The Times’s director of photography, said: “Bill was an extraordinary man, his commitment and passion unparalleled, his gentleness and humility inspirational. Even though his talents were very well known, he preferred to be anonymous, something unachievable for such a superstar. I will miss him every day.”

Mr. Cunningham particularly loved eccentrics, whom he collected like precious seashells.

One was Shail Upadhya, whose work as a Nepalese diplomat is perhaps less memorable than his penchant for polka dots, Pucci prints and other assorted peculiarities, like a self-designed floral-print coat made from his retired sofa.

Another was Iris Apfel, a Palm Beach socialite who became the subject of Albert Maysles’s last documentary film only after Mr. Cunningham took pictures of her on the street in her shiny black saucerlike glasses and chunky costume jewelry.

“Bill photographed me before anyone knew who I was,” Ms. Apfel said. “At 94, I’ve become a cover girl, and he was very largely responsible for my ultimate success.”

Mr. Cunningham’s most frequent observation spot during the day was Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, where he became as much a part of the scenery as Tiffany & Company. His camera clicked constantly as he spotted fashions and moved with gazellelike speed to record his subjects at just the right angle.

“Everyone knew to leave him alone when he saw a sneaker he liked or a dress that caught his eye,” said Harold Koda, the former curator in charge at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute.

“Because if you were in the way of someone he wanted to photograph,” said Kim Hastreiter, the editor of Paper magazine and a friend of Mr. Cunningham’s, “he would climb over you to get it. He was like a war photographer that way, except that what he was photographing were clothes.”

“When I’m photographing,” Mr. Cunningham once said, “I look for the personal style with which something is worn—sometimes even how an umbrella is carried or how a coat is held closed. At parties, it’s important to be almost invisible, to catch people when they’re oblivious to the camera—to get the intensity of their speech, the gestures of their hands. I’m interested in capturing a moment with animation and spirit.”

William John Cunningham Jr. was born on March 13, 1929, in Boston, the second of four children in an Irish Catholic family.

In middle school, he used bits of material he got from a dime store to put together hats, one of which he gave to his mother to wear to the New York World’s Fair in 1939. “She never wore it,” Mr. Cunningham once said. “My family all thought I was a little nuts.”

As a teenager, he got a part-time job at the department store Bonwit Teller, then received a scholarship to Harvard, only to drop out after two months. “They thought I was an illiterate,” he said. “I was hopeless, but I was a visual person.”

With nothing to do in Boston and his parents pressuring him to find some direction, he moved to New York, where he took a room with an uncle, Tom Harrington, who had an ownership stake in an advertising agency.

“My family thought they could indoctrinate me in that business, that living with my uncle, it would brush off,” Mr. Cunningham said. “But it didn’t work. I had always been interested in fashion.”

So when Mr. Harrington issued his nephew an ultimatum—“quit making hats or get out of my apartment”—Mr. Cunningham chose the latter, relocating to a ground-floor apartment on East 52nd Street that doubled as a showroom for his fox-edged fedoras and zebra-stenciled toques.

To make extra money, Mr. Cunningham began freelancing a column in Women’s Wear Daily, then quit sometime in the early 1960s after getting into a feud with its publisher, John Fairchild, over who was a better designer: André Courrèges or Yves Saint Laurent.

“John killed my story,” Mr. Cunningham later recalled. “He said, ‘No, no, Saint Laurent is the one.’ And that was it for me. When they wouldn’t publish the Courrèges article the way I saw it, I left.”

By then, feminism was on the ascent, and bell-bottoms paired with flouncy tops were replacing pink suits and pillbox hats. To Mr. Cunningham, it was becoming clear that his days as a milliner were numbered.

Around 1967, he got his first camera and used it to take pictures of the “Summer of Love,” when he realized the action was out on the street. He started taking assignments for The Daily News and The Chicago Tribune, and he became a regular contributor to The Times in the late 1970s. Over the next two decades, he declined repeated efforts by his editors to get him to take a staff position.

“Once people own you,” he would say, “they can tell you what to do. So don’t let ’em.”

That changed in 1994, after Mr. Cunningham was hit by a truck while riding his bicycle. Explaining why he had finally accepted The Times’s offer, he said, “It was a matter of health insurance.”

Occasionally, Mr. Cunningham allowed people to celebrate him in one way or another. For example, in 1993, he was honored by the Council of Fashion Designers of America and biked onto the stage to accept his award. But that was largely out of character.

Later on, Mr. Koda approached him to see if he would be interested in curating a retrospective of his pictures at the Met. Mr. Cunningham turned him down.

“He said to me, ‘I have a job I love,’” Mr. Koda recalled. “He thought it would be a diversion. He did what he loves, and what he loved is documenting this very ephemeral world.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mr. Cunningham was a reluctant participant in his own documentary. According to its director, Richard Press, Mr. Cunningham would agree to be interviewed, then spend months canceling or postponing shoots. Mr. Cunningham said until his death that he had not seen the film.

“We tried to get him to go to the opening,” Mr. Press said. “He just said: ‘Oh, kids, you made a movie. I’m too busy.’ He came to our opening-night party and he photographed it. He put the directors from the festival in his column, but he didn’t even say why they were there or what they were celebrating.”

Mr. Cunningham also resisted the trends of celebrity dressing. He had seen actresses in their fishtail dresses preening and posing before the phalanxes of photographers at ceremonies like the Golden Globes and the Oscars. They were poised. They looked pretty. Yet he could not muster enthusiasm for them.

It wasn’t simply that he was nostalgic for another time, back when famous women like Lauren Bacall and Brooke Astor actually dressed themselves. That era may have held a certain appeal for him, but even when he was in his 70s and 80s, he still had plenty of subjects he loved to shoot.

One was Louise Doktor, an administrative assistant at a New York holding company who had a coat with four sleeves and a handbag made from a soccer ball. Another was Andre J., a bearded man with a taste for off-the-shoulder, ’70s-inspired dresses.

“He had people who recurred in his columns,” Mr. Koda said. “Most of them were not famous. They were working people he was interested in. His thing was personal style.”

Mr. Cunningham put it this way in an essay he wrote for The Times in 2002: “Fashion is as vital and as interesting today as ever. I know what people with a more formal attitude mean when they say they’re horrified by what they see on the street. But fashion is doing its job. It’s mirroring exactly our times.”


Jacob Bernstein, son of  Nora Ephron and Carl Bernstein, is a contributor to The New York Times. Enid Nemy contributed to this story.




cunningham 2.

Bill Cunningham photograph of a stylish dresser in yellow.





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no regrets

punishment for parricide.

Many readers will look at yesterday’s post about Noah Crooks as a setback to our efforts. They will look at the decisions that Derek and Alex King have made as a squandering of opportunity, an abuse of those of us who have tried to help them, an argument against leniency or reasonableness in sentencing. They will look at recent articles about Jordan Brown that even in the case of an innocent boy, the system is prejudiced against fairness.

The vast majority of juvenile parricides are serving unspeakably long sentences in prison. In Texas, 40-year sentences seem almost de rigueur. We have one kid who is serving a 99-year sentence, fixed by his jury after only 4 minutes of deliberation. Though ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court, some juvenile parricides in other states are still serving Life Without Parole, if not legally, then at least virtually through commutations to impossibly long sentences.

This is not a cause for the faint-hearted. There are likely to be more “losses” than “wins” in our future—at least until society develops more of a gene for compassion.

In the rare event that a juvenile parricide is released from prison, most remain untreated—or unsuccessfully treated—for underlying mental conditions, and have been indoctrinated for years in the prison culture that violence is an effective means of getting what they want. In the free world it isn’t, but many will try.

In ancient Rome, the murder of any father was seen as so beyond the pale that the punishment was for the parricide to be beaten to a pulp, sewn into a bag with a dog, a snake, and a rooster, and to be thrown into the Tiber to experience certain mutilation and death. I think that we have progressed beyond this point—but not that far.

The truth is, parricide is a very complicated crime. In the majority of cases, parricide results from a proliferation of bad parents whom we are tempted to say “had it coming.” In the case of a parent who sexually trespasses his/her child, the “justification” for parricide seems pretty cut-and-dried. The case of a parent who severely beats or berates their offspring is almost as clear. In the cases of parents who are merely inept (such as Terry King), the “justification” for the parent’s fate is less clear. In the cases of mentally-ill kids who kill good parents—a Noah Crooks, for example—the “justification” is most unclear of all and seen as unlucky as an auto accident. To the lazy or credulous jury, sewing the kid in a bag in all cases must seem so much more simple than sorting out all the contributing causes.

In my regular phone conversations with Lone Heron, she has stressed time and again that the decisive factor in a parricide’s redemption is whether or not an offender wants to become self-reliant and go straight. She is in the minority and one of the most admirable people I know. Unfortunately, our practice of trying juvenile parricides as adults (and the press access it provides) helps cement their identities as jailbirds, incorrigibles, and murderers with fawning Internet followings. I have seen it with my own eyes. They are transformed from parricides to parasites, unwilling and incapable of moving beyond the sources of their notoriety.

After the events of two weekends ago, my son Henry questions this crazy commitment to parricides. At one point in the past I had urged Henry to meet with Derek in person and he even considered a roommate arrangement. Luckily, Derek was a no-show and my son was not entangled in my work. Henry knows I will not throw out the baby with the bathwater, and will be satisfied with results that would turn off most other retirees who only want to live out their days in unchallenging ways. My doctor has recommended that I get into a new line of work. My neighbors are relieved that I have sent Derek away and his unpredictability is no longer a factor to be considered.

But like Henry, they all know that I am undeterred. They know that I have no regrets about having backed into this work. They know I am engaged in a lifetime search for kids—even a single one—who will break the mold and defy people’s low expectations.




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In an emotional court hearing on Monday, Noah Crooks, a 17-year-old Osage IA boy convicted in 2013 of the second-degree murder of his mother Gretchen when Noah was 13, was sentenced to 50 years in prison. Trever Hook, one of Noah’s defense attorneys, told me that Noah’s sentence will be appealed to the Iowa State Supreme Court because it is unclear what the law says should be done in this case. The earliest Noah could be released, he said, is in five years.

Noah will start the sentence in adult prison as soon as he turns 18 this summer. Noah has also been ordered to pay $150,000 in restitution to his father. Under the court order, he will not be given probation, but good behavior and other factors may affect the length of the sentence. The judge says he sees no evidence Noah has been rehabilitated. He will not grant probation and needs time to see if the teen is remorseful.

This case is made more complicated because it appears that the family has washed its hands of the fate of the boy. Noah’s father William took the stand for his victim’s impact statement, saying he feels that if he would have stayed home that night, he wouldn’t be here today. He said his wife didn’t deserve to be shot 22 times while sitting on the couch doing homework after preparing Noah’s favorite meal, adding that Noah has never apologized. He said he blamed himself for years for what his son did and says now Noah needs to learn from the hurt he caused. When describing visiting his son at Eldora State Training School, where he’s been since his conviction, William said, “I love you Noah, but you never brought mom up.”

“You need to pay for taking your mother’s life, kid,” he said.

Noah’s uncle took the stand, saying he loves but can never forgive Noah for depriving him of more memories with his sister. He says he has visited Noah and hugged him because that’s what his sister would have wanted. Noah’s grandfather said in his letter that he believes the teen is a serial killer. His grandmother says she loves him very much but it’s clear he has always lacked empathy. She added that she wants Noah safe but also wants society safe from him. She’s not sure releasing him is the answer.

In his statement, Noah said he’s turned his life over to God and wants a relationship with his family again. While Noah says he is now religious, the state maintains he was never religious during his time at the facility. The state also says Noah wrote in a letter that he tried to revive his mother, but evidence shows he tried to rape her. They maintain a doctor says Noah is developing an antisocial personality disorder, though he has not been diagnosed. The state added that another doctor says Noah doesn’t have a mental illness at all but will remain a threat his entire life—even if he is a model inmate, adding that he will say what he needs to in order to get out.

The judge says he needs to take much into consideration in Noah’s case, adding that he’s happy the teen has found Christ and that it will help him. But he said there’s been a lack of response and empathy following the event.

“Noah, for one reason or another, you just don’t want to deal with what you’ve done,” he said.



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acres of diamonds


Before TV, before radio, even before the movies, and contemporaneous with vaudeville (but considered much more moral and “uplifting”), the great mass-market movement of the age was the Chautauqua. Founded in 1874 and running through the 1920s (when commercialization killed it virtually overnight), the Chautauqua was operated in over 10,000 mostly-rural communities throughout America.

It was called “the university of the common man” and relied on the social and geographic isolation of farming and ranching communities, and Americans’ natural hunger for education, culture, and entertainment. The Chautauqua was essentially a self-education movement. Some Chautauquas were so religiously-oriented that they were essentially church camps, while more secular Chautauquas resembled summer school and competed with vaudeville in theaters and circus tent shows with their animal acts and trapeze acrobats.

A few remnants of the Chautauqua still exist today, but it is now largely forgotten and is nowhere close to the popular movement that it once was.

In the late 19th century, the “Mother Chautauqua” was founded as a training school for Sunday school teachers by Methodist minister John Heyl Vincent and businessman Lewis Miller at a campsite on the shores of Chautauqua Lake in New York State. After 1907, “Daughter Chautauquas” were organized  in tents pitched on  well-drained fields near towns throughout America with good rail service. Lectures were the mainstay of the Chautauqua, and the Redpath Lyceum Bureau organized speakers who moved from town to town to make their presentations. The reform speech and the inspirational talk were the two main types of lecture. Favorite political reform topics in Chautauqua lectures included temperance (even prohibition), women’s suffrage, and child labor laws. Later topics included current events, travel and stories, often with a comedic twist. After several days, the Chautauqua would fold its tents and move on to the next towns.

russell_h_conwellWilliam Jennings Bryan, with his populist and evangelical message addressing topics such as temperance, was the most popular Chautauqua speaker. But the most popular speech was by the prolific speaker (often booked in the same venues with Bryan) Russell H. Conwell, who delivered his famous “Acres of Diamonds” speech 6,000 times to audiences on the Chautauqua and Lyceum circuits. His theme was “get rich young man, for money is power and power ought to be in the hands of good people. I say you have no right to be poor.”

The central idea of the speech is that one need not look elsewhere for opportunity, achievement, or fortune—the resources to achieve all good things are present in one’s own community. This theme is developed by an introductory anecdote, credited by Conwell to an Arab guide, about a man who wanted to find diamonds so badly that he sold his property and went off in futile search for them. The new owner of his home discovered that a rich diamond mine was located right there on the property. Conwell elaborates on the theme through examples of success, genius, service, or other virtues involving ordinary Americans contemporary to his audience: “dig in your own backyard!”

Conwell was an American Baptist minister, orator, philanthropist, lawyer, and writer. He is best remembered as the founder and first president of Temple University in Philadelphia PA. He is said to have raised all the money he needed to found Temple University and to have sent hundreds of poor young men through its portals from the speaking fees he earned on the Chautauqua circuit.

The popularity of the speech is somewhat a mystery today. I have read a text of it, and many commentators besides me have said it falls somewhat flat to modern ears. Some have said that it is meant to be delivered orally, that it doesn’t work in writing. The only thing I can speculate is that the message of “Acres of Diamonds” was a good fit with the Progressive Era and social aspirations that America was experiencing at that time.




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