The Supreme Court Misreads History

How Epic Systems fails to understand twentieth-century labor history

Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D

For decades, workers have relied on class action lawsuits to protect their rights. A single employee underpaid by a small amount – say, $5,000 – might struggle to recover that money from his employer. However, if that employee realizes that all his coworkers are also victims of wage theft, the group’s total claim could reach into the millions. Individual employees are more likely to recover if they work together.

But on May 21, 2018, the Supreme Court issued a 5-4 ruling undermining the rights of employees to work together if their employer violates the law. The case, argued in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, pits two early twentieth century laws against each other: the Federal Arbitration Act of 1925 and the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. The court’s ruling misreads history – and the history of labor in the 1920s and 1930s holds valuable lessons for our current situation.

First, a quick reminder. In the 1920s, when the Federal Arbitration Act passed Congress and was signed into law by President Coolidge, the economy was booming. It was the Roaring Twenties, and America’s wealth doubled from 1920 to 1929. Of course, the biggest economic event of the twentieth century began in 1929: the Great Depression

The economic boom of the 1920s didn’t benefit everyone equally. Businesses, wary of the rise of unions and the threat of strikes, began forcing new hires to sign yellow-dog contracts promising they wouldn’t join a union. The coercive practice wasn’t outlawed until 1932, when the nation’s economic situation looked very different.

For more, visit Working Now and Then

The Mysterious Disappearance of Bobby Dunbar

A missing child, a family desperate for answers, and an accused kidnapper facing the death penalty are all pieces in the disappearance of Bobby Dunbar. At that time called the crime of the century, Dunbar's kidnapping became one of the most mysterious disappearances in history. For all the scrutiny placed upon this case, no one really knows what happened to Bobby Dunbar.

The story began on an August day in 1912, when the Dunbar family visited the swamp on a picnic. Four-year-old Bobby wandered off without a trace, igniting an eight months search for their child. But when the police arrested a drifter with a young child, the Dunbars weren't sure the boy was really Bobby. And another woman claimed the child was her son Bruce.

With two mothers fighting over the same boy, and an accused kidnapper facing the death penalty, the case of Bobby Dunbar quickly became a media sensation. But did the courts rule correctly? It wasn't until nearly a century later, with the help of modern technology, that people learned what became of Bobby Dunbar.

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"It Was My Duty To Kill Him" - The Story of The Nurse Who Exacted Brutal Revenge On Her Abusive Boss

Sarah Koten was an unmarried immigrant training to be a nurse when her boss, Dr. Martin Auspitz, raped her at work in 1908. After she became pregnant, the police and the courts refused to help Koten... so she plotted to murder her assailant by herself. On June 8, 1908, Koten did just that, shooting her rapist right through the heart. Koten defended her choice by arguing, "It was my duty to kill him."

Just like the painter Artemisia Gentileschi, the woman who painted herself killing her rapist, Koten saw her actions as justified. At first, the press disagreed. The story of Sarah Koten and Dr. Auspitz became a media sensation as stories about the nurse who killed a doctor in 1908 made headlines around the country. 

But after Koten gave birth to a son in prison, the press began to see her in a new light. They portrayed Koten as a powerless woman who had no other choice but to shoot her attacker. Koten, however, always saw her actions in a different light: She was a powerful avenger, slaying her assaulter before he could hurt other women. In 1908, the court had to decide: Was Koten guilty? 

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These Grotesque 18th Century Wax Models Were Made From Real Corpses

These eighteenth-century wax anatomical figures are both gruesome and eerily attractive. Alluring women recline with their organs on display, twirling hair through their fingers, while painted-on blood drips from wax heads and skeletons strike poses on tables. Just like how real bodies are used in Body Worlds exhibits today, eighteenth-century artists based their stunningly realistic wax models on the actual dead.

The wax models helped educate medical students in a time when bodies for dissection were scarce. Just like the sixteenth-century trend of showing dissections in massive theaters so that hundreds could watch, wax anatomical models exposed the secrets of the human body to a large audience. The Medici family museum, La Specola, opened in Florence in 1775 and made it so that anyone could gawk at the models—including the Marquis de Sade.

The actual bodies used to make anatomical models include a teenage girl who died in 1782 while she was five months pregnant. Today, her wax reproduction is in a museum in Bologna, wearing pearls and resting peacefully with her organs on display and preserved forever.

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The Secret Political Symbolism You Never Knew Was Hidden Within The Wizard Of Oz

The Wizard of Oz is a beloved children's story that includes both the book, published in 1900, and the movie, which came out in 1939. For years, fans have been drawn to behind-the-scenes gossip about the movie and the strange conspiracies surrounding The Wizard of Oz. But is there a secret political message also hidden in L. Frank Baum's book? 

Historians have found a number of symbols in The Wizard of Oz, and they all point to one thing: American politics in the 1890s, when Baum was writing the book. The Wizard of Ozsymbolism goes incredibly deep, from the main characters to the cyclone, those famous slippers, and even Toto. And the central message in the book is all about the rise of Populism and the debate over gold versus silver. Late 19th-century Populists were primarily rural farmers and workers who rallied to demand an increase in releasing an unlimited coinage of silver to circulate more currency as well as income tax reforms, direct election of US senators, and other ways of giving farmers and industrial workers a better playing field in the economy while strengthen political democracy.

It might sound far-fetched, but there is a wealth of evidence to support the theory that Baum was writing a political allegory through the lens of a fanciful children's tale. Baum was a political reporter in the 1890s and he lived in South Dakota for several years, giving him a close-up view of the rise of the Populist movement and the views of American farmers and workers. Is The Wizard of Oz an allegory for politics in the 1890s? Interestingly enough, there are arguably also some parallels to today's political scene, making even the would-be political allegory into a timelessly relevant tale. Read on and decide for yourself.

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How to Put a Fake Island on a Map (Atlas Obscura)

Frisland never existed, but for centuries, people wanted to believe that it did.

BY GENEVIEVE CARLTON 

DECEMBER 04, 2017

IN 1558, A VENETIAN NAMED Nicolò Zeno invented an island in the Atlantic Ocean. The rectangular island, dotted with cities with Italian-sounding names like Forlanda and Sorand, rested just south of Iceland, bracketed by Norway to the east and the mysterious Estotiland to the west. Zeno called the island Frisland and claimed that two of his ancestors, Antonio and his brother Nicolò, had discovered the island in the 1380s. Zeno also went one step further, declaring that Venetians had discovered the New World—labeled Estotiland on the map—a full century before Columbus’s Genoa or Vespucci’s Florence could claim the prize.

While Zeno’s relatives were real and most likely did engage in exploration of some sort, Zeno’s tale, outlined in his 1558 book Della Scoprimento and an accompanying map, was fictional. Nevertheless, his fabrication was convincing. Many of his contemporaries validated and reprinted his claims. Even centuries later, the Zeno story resonated. In the mid-19th century, English scholar Richard Henry Major declared the Zeno story an “authentic … genuine, and valuable narrative,” while geologist William Herbert Hobbs ruled in 1951 that the Zeno brothers were “honest and quite competent discoverers.” As late as 1989, Venetian philologist Giorgio Padoan argued that there was no forgery—Venetians had stepped on the New World before any other Europeans.

There’s very little mystery around why Nicolò Zeno would invent this tale of bravery and adventure by his ancestors and namesake. It elevated the Zeno name to new heights and also described a major accomplishment for Venice, which was quickly being eclipsed as a naval power by the growing strength of Spain, France, and England. But why did people believe Zeno’s story of a lost Venetian voyage of exploration? And why did cartographers and geographers continue to insist the island was real well into the 20th century?

For more, go to Atlas Obscura.

How 16th-Century European Mapmakers Described the World’s Oceans (Atlas Obscura)

For some, they were an obstacle. For others, they were an opportunity.

BY GENEVIEVE CARLTON 

OCTOBER 30, 2017

ACCORDING TO MEDIEVAL MAPMAKERS, THE world was made up of three continents ringed by narrow bodies of water. When the voyages of Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, and Ferdinand Magellan uncovered continents previously unknown to Europeans, this posed a major problem for those cartographers. But these explorers did not just stumble upon uncharted land—they also became aware of expansive stretches of ocean around the world.

For the first time, Europeans were confronted with the realization that they lived on a blue planet, with 71 percent of the Earth’s surface covered by water. The narrow strips of blue on medieval mappae mundi—also known as T-O maps, which showed the earth as a T centered on Jerusalem—were suddenly dwarfed by unimaginably vast oceans. Stories about the European discovery of the New World are ubiquitous, but stories about the discovery of so much new water are much more rare.

For more, visit Atlas Obscura.

The Real Couple That Inspired 'Beauty And The Beast' Led Remarkably Tragic Lives

It’s a tale as old as time – or, at least as old as the 1500s. But the real couple that inspired Beauty and the Beast lived a tragic life. The real life Beauty and the Beast were Catherine and Petrus Gonsalvus, and they were treated like freaks of nature by Europe’s kings and queens. Although the tale of Petrus and Catherine Gonsalvus isn't the single inspiration of the tale – it has much deeper folkloric roots than that – its optics match those of the fictional couple.

Just like P.T. Barnum collected freaks, in the 16th century, Europe’s royal courts competed to find the strangest human for their amusement. Petrus Gonsalvus, the "beast," was born with a condition that covered his face in hair. The French royal court kept Petrus for years to amuse the nobility by reciting Latin, and they even decided to arrange a marriage for Petrus as a joke.

There are definitely some messed up things in the fictional story of Beauty and the Beast – especially if you start to wonder what happened after the movie ended. But nothing in the fairy tale version compares with the torments suffered by the Petrus Gonsalvus family tree. When he was just 10 years old, Petrus Gonsalvus was locked in a cage and treated like an animal. Lady Catherine Gonsalvus was tricked by an evil Queen into marrying a wild man that she didn’t even meet until their wedding day. And what Europe’s royalty did to the Gonsalvus children is even worse. In the tragic story of Catherine and Petrus Gonsalvus, there are no fairy tale endings.

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This Doctor Actually Tried To Resurrect George Washington From The Dead With Lamb's Blood

When George Washington died on December 14, 1799, the nation mourned the loss of its first President and the heroic general of the American Revolution, but one man didn't accept the President’s death. Instead of waiting for a divine presidential resurrection, Dr. William Thornton came up with his own plan to bring George Washington back to life. 

Dr. Thornton, who was famous for being the architect who designed the United States Capitol Building, was also a trained physician and a friend to George Washington. Thornton was familiar with cutting-edge blood transfusion techniques, which had been banned in France for over 100 years because of their link with a grisly murder. But that didn't stop Dr. Thornton.

Thornton arrived at George Washington’s side only hours after the President died from a viral infection of his throat and bloodletting. The death had been caused by a loss of heat, air, and blood, Thornton reasoned, so it was possible to use heat, air, and blood to restore the President. Dr. Thornton’s plan to “resuscitate” George Washington started with thawing the President’s frozen corpse and warming the body. Dr. Thornton then planned to perform a tracheotomy to inflate the President’s lungs. The final step was to infuse the President’s body with hot lamb’s blood.

Only the intervention of George Washington’s family stopped Dr. William Thornton from creating the first Frankenstein president – though given the range of their ailments, other presidents likely would've appreciated the effort, as well.

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