It’s been an amazing week of secret histories on Gizmodo, and we wanted to finish up by sharing our own secret histories. Apparently, the families of Gizmodo staffers are full of criminal acts and shenanigans and hanky panky. So it’s confession time …
My great-grandfather was an arsonist. He came over from Central Europe to Nova Scotia, Canada, in the late nineteenth century and opened a candy shop. That’s where my grandmother Anita Cohen (my father’s mother) was born. According to my father, her family moved to New York City under a series of shady circumstances. There, my great-grandfather opened another candy shop, but times were tough. So he burned the place down for the insurance money. Which might have been a good idea, except he got caught and sent to jail. So Anita was raised mostly by her brothers, and never talked about her father at all. In fact, I didn’t hear this story until my dad was in his sixties, a few years before he died, and he told it as if he assumed I’d known all along that I was descended from an arsonist.
Actually, I kind of did know, but not for the reasons he thought. When I was a kid, my mum told me a story about her childhood in rural west Texas. One afternoon, for no apparent reason, my 7-year-old mum lit her house on fire. She claimed it was “accidental.” Because of course you can light two separate trees in your front yard on fire accidentally. Happens all the time.
So I have arsonists on both sides of my family tree. And that’s probably why I became an internet journalist.
I never knew my maternal grandfather (mother’s father), but suspect I might have liked him. He was a bit of a dandy at the height of Prohibition, and had a side business as a bootlegger of bathtub gin. Apparently he wasn’t very good at it; he died of alcohol poisoning after sampling a bad batch, leaving his young wife (a former flapper) with eight kids to feed. That proved too much for her, so the kids were split up and sent into foster care. My mum eventually landed in a Catholic orphanage and grew up super poor. She used to tell us stories about stripping off bits of roof tar as a substitute for chewing gum; eating canned tomatoes on toast was a luxury. But she always said she was really happy at the orphanage despite getting kicked out the choir for being tone-deaf; the nuns loved her. I think it’s called resiliency. A good quality to have.
I come from a long line of explosives blasters, and I’m really not sure how we lived long enough to procreate. My great-something grandfather Wild Dan worked on the railways, blasting mountain passes. One day he set a charge that didn’t go off, so he broke the cardinal rule on how to not die and went to investigate. It wasn’t a dud charge, it was just a bit slow. Somehow he survived and went on to have children. My grandfather loved to celebrate, so when he had a few extra sticks of dynamite leftover from a job, he brought them home to set off in the back yard. It made a terrifically exciting explosion, with the small minor problem of also knocking down a power pole with a transformer, killing electricity for the entire neighbourhood. In the generation most recent to mine, a culprit who shall not be named forgot to burn the dynamite left over from blasting a rocky outcrop to make space for the foundations of our island home. At least, not until the dynamite was a sweaty, unstable mess of looming-catastrophe under the dock.
As for me, my first day as an apprentice blaster I got called off the site and sent to another camp. I dashed off to my flight in the gear I’d been wearing all day, explosives residue on my boots and gloves, and the excess detonator wire in my pockets. Airport security was somewhat less than pleased.
One branch of my family is Mormon (or LDS, if you prefer), and my great-grandfather on that side was a polygamist. And, also, an arsehole, it would seem. Anyway, he had two wives. Of the three of them he died first, and family lore has it that when he did one of the wives turned to the other and said, “I’m so glad it was him and not you!” Turns out they really did love each other like sisters, and they both pretty much hated him. Not sure what the moral is there. Probably isn’t one. But there you go anyway.
After travelling south from Pennsylvania to North Carolina with the Boone family (and a young Daniel), the Silers settled on a farm to grow cotton and tobacco, and raise hogs. In 1798, the Crockett family ended up oweing my ancestor Jacob some debts, but couldn’t pay them. So, they gave their young son, Davey, to Jacob as an indentured servant.
The official version of Davey Crockett’s biography is more flattering to us Silers than the version of the story I’ve heard from family members: “John Crockett hired his son out to Jacob Siler to help drive a herd of cattle to Rockbridge County, Virginia. Siler tried to detain David by force after the job was completed, but the boy escaped at night by walking seven miles in two hours through knee-deep snow.”
It’s my understanding that conditions for the slaves and indentured servants working for my family were very bad, and that Davey ran away to flee physical abuse. And that’s how he embarked on the first of many wilderness adventures.
Jacob Siler apparently used to make guns and is said to have actually made a rifle for his friend Daniel Boone. Jacob’s personal gun was a percussion cap side-by-side shotgun that he used to put food on the table for the family. That was passed down a couple generations to John Siler, my great-great grandfather. And he used it to defend the farm when the Union Army marched through. He died holding it in his hands and the Yankees burned the farm to the ground. That’s not there anymore, but Siler City, North Carolina was built on the farm we once owned. That gun is now mounted on my bedroom wall. My dad was the last person to fire it; I’m searching for a firearms restorer capable of returning it to useable condition.
Although we haven’t been able to get a straight answer on if this was planned or not, all three of the kids in my family were born in original trilogy Star Wars years. When their third child was a boy, my parents decided to name my brother Luke Sky Walker. Here we are on the eve of another Star Wars film, and all three of us siblings have babies born in the last 12 months. None of them are named Kylo Ren.
In the 1950s, Colonel Harlan Sanders had begun franchising his popular Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant chain haphazardly across the US but had yet to sell it to a major corporation that would turn it into the ubiquitous fast food chain that it would become in the ’60s. But he had already been officially dubbed a Colonel by the state, and was an obviously celebrity, unmistakable in his trademark all-white suit, black-rimmed glasses, and goatee. This included Lexington, Kentucky, where my father Leonard grew up. At some point in the ’50s, my father was walking around downtown Lexington with my great-grandmother for their weekly Sunday excursion, which often culminated with my father enjoying a milkshake at one of those drug stores that existed solely in the ’50s. But before they reached the drug store, my father, who would certainly not more than six years old, saw a man in an all-white suit coming up the footpath toward him.
Something people don’t know about Col. Sanders is that he had an excellent memory, especially for names and faces. Not that my great-grandmother was some Lexington celebrity — far from it — but just by virtue of being part of daily life in a small city, she was known to the community, and if you were part of a reasonably sized town in Central Kentucky, that meant Colonel Sanders know who you were. But his skills went past that; when he heard about people getting married, or passing on, or having kids, well, he managed to record and remember all that too.
As my dad tells, it, he stood totally still as this giant old man in white sauntered up to them (Sanders was only 5’10”, but hey, my dad was like 5). He recognised my great-grandmother instantly. “Why hello thar, Mrs. Bricken!” he exclaimed, and uttered a few Southern pleasantries. And then he turned to my father, standing utterly paralysed. Col. Sanders slowly bent over to lean down over my father. “And this heah must be little Leonard…”
And my dad ran.
It was the fact this bizarre, ominous giant somehow knew his name, my dad says, that terrified him enough to break out of his shock and flee for his life. My dad doesn’t remember anything after that, although I assume at some point my great-grandmother caught him and calmed him down, because if Col. Sanders had killed an eaten him, I probably wouldn’t be here. But I do know this — my father has never once purchased Kentucky Fried Chicken to this day.
My dad’s side of the family is a pretty typical American story: immigrants coming to America in the early 1900’s, landing in New York City and staying there. My mum’s side is a bit more cinematic. The story as I know it is that my grandfather (who was born in the 1890s) was made homeless by the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. To earn money he became a dancer at a young age, entertaining on street-corners, then vaudeville halls. He was so good that later he introduced the Argentine Tango to America, which received a lot of coverage and started a bit of a craze. On an international tour, he turned down an invitation to join the Moscow ballet, and danced for Nicholas II, the last Russian tsar.
Back in America, he became a prohibition agent, apparently an extremely ambitious one. Records show that he was constantly promoted until he was practically running things in New York State. At the same time, he had a yeast company that was engaged in some shady business. He earned the ire of Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the straight-and-narrow assistant attorney general for prohibition enforcement, and he was apparently the publisher of an anti-Herbert Hoover publication called “Politics.” His arch-rival was Joseph Kennedy, JFK’s father, though he was friendly with the Kennedy kids. A newspaper from the time describes him as “a dance-crazy young roughneck.”
Needless to say, he emerged from the prohibition era having done quite well for himself. After that he returned to his entertainment roots, as a producer on Broadway and in Palm Beach, Florida, where he ran the Royal Ponciana Playhouse and made its Celebrity Room a hotspot destination for, well, celebrities, the glitterati and visits from kings. The room was celebrated for its dancing, which appears to be the steady thread through his life. I never met him, but I like to think we would have gotten along — even if though I have two left feet.