Time for an incomplete roundup of feuds, controversies, quarrels, and rows, with stakes ranging from pungent but extremely profitable to wildly superficial but lucrative…
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1. The ice cream man’s chimey warble draws neighborhood children looking for bomb pops, push pops, eskimo pies, and in 1980s Glasgow, drugs, guns, and stolen merchandise. Taking a cue from pirates sailing under false colors to surprise unsuspecting seafarers, Glaswegian organized crime contingents turned ice cream trucks into mobile black markets roaming the streets under cover of snow cones and drumsticks. The resulting battle over ice cream territory was a bloodbath.
Drivers who refused to cede territory to the racket were assaulted, raided, had shotguns fired through their windshield, and were most likely visited by menacing track-suit-clad bagmen who issued veiled threats while cracking their knuckles. From the outside, the violence appeared farcical and surreal; that something more than ice cream was at stake wasn’t clear, suggesting a dark and savage answer to the question of what one would do for a klondike bar sales route. Local police ignored the violence, eventually garnering the nickname “serious chimes squad” for their apathy. The Ice Cream Wars culminated in the arson death of an 18-year-driver and his entire family, after the kid refused to cede his territory.
Then things get weird. Six people were arrested for crimes related to those deaths. Four were convicted and sentenced for lesser crimes, while two (Thomas Campbell and Joe Steele) were convicted of the murders, kicking off a bizarre 20-year odyssey of these Scottish justice system. Both Campbell and Steel vehemently protested their conviction and proclaimed their innocence. Steele escaped from prison multiple times, but instead of running away used his freedom to stage an elaborate protest, such as super gluing himself to a railing at Buckingham Palace, just to get attention. Campbell went on a hunger strike and for years refused to cut his hair.
In 1992, eight years after their conviction, a key witness admitted he had lied on the stand. Fully five years later, Steele and Campbell were granted an appeal and were released while it was heard. The appeal failed, and they were put back in jail, only to be released again in 2001 while another appeal was heard. In 2004, their convictions were overturned and they were released for good. The murders remain unsolved.
Interesting side note because I like brain stuff: one of the key pieces of testimony leading to their successful appeal came from a cognitive psychologist, who noted that the testimony of police officers about what Campbell had said in custody was too similar to be real. Memory is poor for specific words—we recall the gist—suggesting that agreement in their testimony owed to collusion rather than recollection. I knew my field of study had real-world applications, I just didn’t expect it to be clearing the guys framed for mass murder at the culmination of a campaign of carnage centered around ice cream trucks. This is exactly like when that guy invented the atomic clock, then years later it was used to develop GPS.
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2. The population of America and Europe was exploding in the 19th century, and so too was the need for fertilizer to grow crops to feed all those people. The best fertilizer: guano. In particular, seagull dung. The best place to get it: the Chincha Islands, off the coast of Peru. Because of the dry climate, isolation from humans, and massive seabird population, the Chinchas were nothing but granite slabs on which mountains of bird excrement had accumulated for centuries without the critical nitrates leaching out. Chock full of nitrogen, Chincha-mined guano was the best fertilizer money could buy.
Guano was so important to the US that in 1856 Congress passed the Guano Islands Act, which said that any US citizen finding guano in unclaimed territory could claim that land for the US. More than 100 islands were so claimed, many of which were briefly guano-mined (almost always by enslaved labor working in conditions almost exactly as bad as you can imagine) before being left creepily abandoned. One example: Jarvis Island, in the middle of absolutely nowhere in the Pacific Ocean; of its one-time residents wikipedia notes “Squire Flockton was left alone on the island as caretaker for several months and committed suicide there in 1883, apparently from gin-fueled despair.” The act was loosely written and never repealed; in 1964 Leicester Hemingway, brother of Ernest, used it to claim a small bamboo raft anchored near Jamaica as a US territory. He was ignored.
Peru had claimed independence from Spain in 1822, and with the rest of the world’s realization of the importance of good guano, had a way to rebuild their economy. Europeans were just unlocking the secret of bird poo, but the Inca had known all along—they had laws against disturbing the birds. Spanish conquistadores, suffering from severe cases of gold fever, had completely ignored the massive heaps of shit—so enamored were they of literal gold mines, they ignored the figurative ones. The guano reserves were ultimately a mixed bag for Peru: worth a lot, but as a result their economy was almost entirely excrement-dependent. It put them in a tenuous position if, say, buyers played hardball or prices fluctuated. Then Spain attempted to re-colonize and briefly seized the islands in 1864 (the Chincha Islands War). That was rebuffed thanks to an alliance with Chile and Ecuador.
But by the 1870s the guano supply was dwindling and saltpeter was replacing it as the nitrate-based fertilizer of choice (probably not unrelatedly, saltpeter was also better for making gunpowder). The best place to get saltpeter? The Atacama Desert, along the western coast of Peru, Chile, and Bolivia. By this point, both Peru and Chile were in dire economic straits, and even though the three countries had allied just a decade earlier in fighting Spain, by 1879 they turned on each other for control of the nitrate trade, which was then monopolized by Peru. Chile nominally “won” that war. The real loser was Bolivia, who ceded their nub of nitrate-rich coastal territory to Chile and thus became landlocked. Within a few decades, the ability to fix nitrogen from air was commercialized and guano and saltpeter exports were almost completely nullified.
For the full story, I strongly recommend this, it’s really interesting.
Side guano trivia: In the Bond novel Dr. No, the eponymous villain’s secret headquarters is located on a guano island, and he dies by being buried in guano. It’s a real tragedy. My uncle went the same way.
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3. County seats are administrative centers, but during America’s lawless and violent westward expansion, seathood meant much more than courthouses and paperwork: it meant money. The tax benefits and population growth conferred by seathood lined the pockets of town leaders and/or shameless profiteers and speculators, and for outpost towns on the downslope when the land bubble burst, being named county seat was the difference between survival and abandonment. Naturally, this led to county seat wars: corruption, political chicanery, fraud, occasional violence, nighttime covert operations, ballot box stuffing, electioneering, and any and all manner of indiscriminate scoundrelry.
When I said it was lucrative, I was not exaggerating:
“C. J. Jones, who delighted in the sobriquet of “Buffalo Jones,” on being remonstrated with for his recklessness in becoming involved in some six or eight of these affairs, justified his course by saying that he could afford to lose in all of them but one; that if in any single instance the town which he was backing became the county seat he and his associates would not only from their profits be able to recoup their losses in all their unsuccessful efforts, but would have enough left to make them independent for life.”
Kansas was the real hotbed of county seat struggles. An initial attempt to claim the Garfield County seat in 1873, for example, was overruled when it was discovered the town didn’t even exist. By 1887, the Garfield County seat election—pitting the towns of Ravana and Eminence—was so heated that famed old-west lawman Bat Masterson was called in to keep the peace; he also provided counterweight to disputing factions’ hiring of so-called “killers” (who didn’t kill so much as handle dirty work, threats of violence, or G. Gordon Liddy-like acts of political espionage and sabotage; the county seat wars were surprisingly nonviolent, on balance). It turns out election monitors might have been a better hire: a combined population of under 800 had managed to cast nearly 10,000 votes—Ravana “won” by 35—and the logistics of that ballotbox stuffing were as inelegant as the outcome: “election officers usually lacked even imagination enough to invent fictitious names.”
That same year the election for seat of Gray County pitted Ingalls, Cimarron, and Montezuma, and also prominently featured a man named Asa J. Soule. Disturbingly compared in various publications to both PT Barnum and Donald Trump, Soule was an amoral multimillionaire land speculator who made his fortune selling a patent medicine called Hop Bitters, made of pure grain alcohol, only mildly poisonous adulterants, and the solemn promise to cure what ails you. The whole county seat thing was simply a caprice for him; apparently he “wanted to have a county seat of his own as a sort of toy to beguile his idle moments.” Backing Ingalls, Soule compelled Montezuma to drop out by promising to build them a railroad (later torn up because there wasn’t much to carry) and an irrigation canal (which lay fallow because it had no water source), and writing a check to each of its citizens. Cimarron “won” but the result was overturned by the Kansas Supreme Court. Attempts to move county records to Ingalls ended in a gunfight and at least one death; Cimarron was eventually named the county seat in 1896.
I can’t decide if the existence of “county seat wars” is a greater indictment of the american dream, the myth of the old west, capitalism, or the very concept of statehood, but then maybe I don’t have to choose. That said, I can’t recommend strongly enough the 1930s-era article here; if for nothing other the old-timey language and I-think-unintentional dry wit.
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4. Continuing the westward expansion, the wide-open (read: seized by violence) lands proved wonderful grazing for cattle. Also for sheep. That was a problem: cattle are picky eaters, so their grazing generally did not leave a large ecological footprint. Ovines on the other hand are completely indiscriminate, and eat the land right down to the dirt, leaving behind polluted waters and ungrazeable land. Combine cattle herders’ hatred of sheep herders with frontier justice and you get the Sheepshooters’ War. Which is as horrible as it sounds: cattlemen formed posses, kidnapped shepherds, then slaughtered all the sheep they could lay their hands on, by gun, club, or being run off a cliff. More than 10,000 sheep were killed in the last decade of the 19th century in Oregon alone; the “war” finally abated when the government set up grazing land allotments.
The sheep-shooting war was just one entry in the larger “range wars,” which usually pitted cattle barons against one another for control of grazing lands. I really don’t care about cattle ranchers fighting over stolen land, but I mentioned it because I think “Cattle Baron” would be a great name for a steak restaurant, but it turns out it’s already a small Texas and New Mexico chain.
Additional cattle-baron side note: Notorious box-office bomb Heaven’s Gate was loosely based on the Johnson County War in Wyoming, which involved hired goons, “cattle detectives,” armed standoffs, and the eventual intervention of the US Cavalry. I’ll defer to wikipedia for the succinct description: “The Johnson County War, with its overtones of class warfare and intervention by the President of the United States to save the lives of a gang of hired killers and set them free, is not a flattering reflection on the American myth of the west.” Sure isn’t.