Hearse That Carried Elvis’ Body Destroyed In Fire

There is much emotion among many in the nation today as Graceland was opened this morning to the public for a memorial service for Lisa Marie Presley, the only child of Elvis. With powerful words and numerous musical selections, the program was a stirring reminder of the connection fans around the globe have for the man who changed music and culture. Elvis’ family has become a part of the national fabric the way the Kennedy family formed emotional chords of unity.  This phenomenon has been rather remarkable to witness going on for 50 years. Growing up as a teenager in the 70s I was drawn to the music and mood that was conveyed in performances ranging from Treat Me Nice to Its Midnight. From my rural and too-often redneck community, I found strength in Elvis having worn pink shirts and a ducktail in a direct middle finger salute to the norms of his time. His message was not lost on a kid from Hancock who was trying to bend the norms in his hometown, too.

While there are many stories and photos today of the program and the grief in Memphis, I want to take a different path with this post and in so doing add some trivia for fans that are always in search of another aspect to the larger story concerning EP they might not have been aware of previously.

What happened to the hearse that carried Elvis’ body in Memphis in 1977?

My name is Chuck Houston, President of Houston Brothers, Inc., a funeral car dealer in Marietta, GA. Around 1984, I was the last person to drive the hearse that carried Elvis to his grave. Our Company, then known as Crain S&S Sales which my father owned, bought, sold, leased and traded cars with SCI. He did so for many years. He originally sold the car new to SCI. We came back into possession of Elvis’s hearse when Memphis FH updated their rolling stock.We were loaning the hearse to a funeral home in South Florida until their new vehicle was ready for delivery. My father was reluctant to loan the car out. He wanted to hang on to it, the only car he ever wanted to keep in 50 years of business.The funeral home in Florida was one of his biggest customers and needed a white/white loaner desperately. Elvis’s hearse happened to be the only white hearse on the lot. Another employee and I, both of us about 21 at the time (we were going to drop off the car and then spend a few days of spring break in Ft. Lauderdale) took off toward Miami on I-75 around 7:00 pm.Around 10:00 we ran out of gas just north of Valdosta, GA. What was odd is that a tank of gas in those days would carry you from Marietta, GA to the Live Oak exit in Florida with gas left in the tank. That was based on the many, many cars my friend and I delivered to the south Florida area in the early ’80s. Therefore we never checked the gas gauge until we were in the vicinity of Live Oak.

abandoned funeral service car

After running out of gas, we walked about two miles to the next exit, bought a can and some gas and started back up the northbound return ramp toward Elvis’s hearse. Before reaching the highway a Lowndes County Sheriff stopped us, asked where we were going and called us a cab. We got her going again and headed for the gas station to fill her up. Heading south again, we were on our way. Just as the weigh station (the last one on southbound 75) came into sight the engine cut off. I dropped her into neutral while traveling around 65 mph and turned the ignition. When I did, fire shot out from under the hood on both sides. I eased her to the shoulder next to the weigh station return ramp and my friend and I jumped from the hearse as the fire engulfed the front end of the hearse.My friend and I met at the rear of the car and realized all of our possessions were in the rear of the hearse and the doors were locked. We couldn’t get back in the front to retrieve the keys due to the fire having already spread. A truck driver appeared with a fire extinguisher but it was too late. Neither of us wanted to get close for fear the hearse would blow up. So there we stood and watched as Elvis’s hearse went up in flames. A fire truck finally arrived and all they could save was the rear quarter panels, the rear door, and bumper.

Historical Photo From Oregon, Wisconsin Allows Us To Ponder Masculinity

Hat Tip to Dan Young.

I saw a most interesting photo in my email Thursday morning from the Oregon, Wisconsin Historical Society.  I could not locate a precise time or listing of which team was pictured, but that was not required, since what struck me at once is that no contemporary photo staged this way would be now considered.  And that is rather sad.

Given the macho lingo so overused by many men today along with the derogatory use of the word ‘gay’ assures us that the grouping of Oregon athletes from the picture is one that could never now be photographed.  It reminds me of the Civil War photographs that men would often take (if they had the means) prior to going to war. Many of the pictures show close male bonds and even tender-type images with their buddy, brother, or fellow soldier from their local area. During the pre-war days, it was common for male friends to visit a photographer to show their love and loyalty towards each other.

Physical non-sexual intimacy between men was much more prevalent in the early years of our national story, as evidenced also in letters that allowed for emotional intimacy from the likes of Alexander Hamilton along with numerous examples of deep regard among elected officials in Washington.  Over the decades of reading and better understanding history one of the features of small-town America that forms a perfect mental image for me was summed up by online writers, Brett & Kate McKay. I pull this from my files today to make the case.

The photographer’s studio would have been at the center of town, well-known by everyone, and one’s neighbors would have been sitting in the waiting room just a few feet away. Because homosexuality, even if the thought of as a practice rather than an identity, was not something publicly expressed, these men were not knowingly outing themselves in these shots; their poses were common, and simply reflected the intimacy and intensity of male friendships at the time — none of these photos would have caused their contemporaries to bat an eye.

The photo that arrived in my email and prompted this post is a reminder of the limitations that men have constructed for themselves in our society.  Emotional distance with a limiting and unhealthily self-created definition of what constitutes ‘being male’ has stunted men and negatively impacted families. Years ago, I asked historian Stephen Ambrose, during one of his many visits to Borders Books on University Avenue about this form of male bonding and how it manifested itself during WWII, a time period he wrote about in numerous volumes.

I recall his speaking about late teenagers (boys really) who had known nothing other than their farms or villages and close families then walked into a completely new world of terror and unknowns, coming to soon realize that their lives depended on their fellow soldiers. With such a connection with strangers, it was easy for them to find bonds of intimacy and deep emotional regard for each other.  Those friendships and relationships made solid individuals, but such interactions should obviously not need to be confined to the war theater.

Some foolishly claim from a political perspective that men are losing their masculinity, but I would argue what society requires are men who understand the totality of being human and living the whole spectrum of their emotions.

How Long Will America Remain Exceptional?

As we drove in the city Saturday night James relayed a phone call conversation with a nurse regarding one of his clients.  The nurse had a resonant and deep type of voice which James noted made him “perfect for radio”.  The medical professional was not at all sure what those words meant and said as much. He even seemed a bit miffed by the remark.  I laughed upon hearing his response as radio and the sound of announcers’ voices is often a topic at our home.  In addition, the phrase was not some obscure one, but rather what anyone should be able to grasp and further banter about.

It may seem like a most trivial matter, and by itself it certainly is, but as we talked about it further, it segued into the larger topic we often discuss. We have lost a commonality on a very wide and broad array of topics that we once had some awareness of, and equally important, an ability to converse with on a whim.  Be it a lobsterman in Maine, a truck driver in Florida, a rancher in Montana, or a dock worker in San Diego there was a time when we had more unified and common connections.

The diversity of ways to get news and information, hear very narrow types of music, dialogue with a select group of friends and acquaintances, or live in areas that are very much akin to one’s beliefs and customs has, too often, created very confined thinking and abbreviated knowledge about a host of topics. Instead of looking at our current ways of being happy be they in how we are entertained or lifestyle choices, we might ponder how limiting it has made us when considering our relationships with our fellow citizens.

I am most certain that those who read blogs are more my age than young adults. As such, the background of older readers will better recall having family dinnertime together (or supper as it was called in my Hancock home) where free-flowing conversations were held each night and where being absent was not an option. In many cases, I suspect readers might also know that the table of decades ago was often intergenerational which added another layer of background and even enhanced storytelling capability. Younger people in that grouping were exposed to topics galore, differences of views, and ways to reason and interact in a fast-paced yet convivial manner. There was no way not to come in contact with a vast array of names, places, and trivia that linked with other such dinner tables nationwide.

I often mention to James the argument that some historians and sociologists have presented in papers and talks that America’s time on the world stage is waning towards a far-off sunset. They view their theory based on international dynamics, economic power, or advances made with new innovations and life-altering concepts. While I do not subscribe to their dour conclusions, I certainly recognize the larger arguments they make and, in some respects, much agree with the current problems in need of remedies. While the comment about a radio voice from the start of this column does not seem to mesh with needing to be more potent with international commerce or foreign policy, there is a theme that does connect all this together.

During the holidays I read an older article in Foreign Affairs where Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldun was discussed.  He lived in the 14th century and is probably best known to us in the 21st century for his ideas about collective action through what he termed asabiyya.  To winnow this down, a society best moves forward when there is a feeling and conviction that we are all in this together and that our united actions will allow for advances to be made.  The key, of course, is unified actions, which also blend with unified knowledge, which is my argument in these paragraphs.  The problem is that I do not see our nation as united on anything.  A pandemic struck and killed well over one million of our fellow citizens and the virus splintered us into varying parts. Perhaps the most damaging aspect of the titanic story was not medical but societal.  

Our lack of bonds of commonality ranging from what we generally should know about common phrases to how we should behave with regard to each other during a pandemic does then beg the question researchers and historians are asking. How long will America remain a city on a hill?

Frank Shakespeare Dies In Dane County At 97: RKO And CBS Division Presidents, Vatican Ambassador, Roger Ailes Friend In ’68 Nixon Campaign

Frank Shakespeare, a consequential man who lived a life at the intersection of business, media, politics, and diplomacy, died Tuesday at the age of 97. He had resided in Deerfield with his family for well over a decade.

If there was any single person in Dane County who merited an oral history recorded about his work and interactions with the likes of Edward R. Murrow to Pope John Paul II, it was Frank Shakespeare. Sadly, however, that never happened.

His resume ranges from being division presidents at RKO and CBS, ambassador to Portugal and the Holy See, and Chairman of the Board for International Broadcasting, an attempt to further the call for democracy during the Cold War.

Many years ago Shakespeare sat on our front lawn in the Adirondack chairs for just a friendly summertime visit. I can honestly say the quirk of circumstances that brought him into our lives is vastly far less interesting than the life he lived.

I will never forget Shakespeare describing, both with words and mimicking, the hand movements of the chain-smoking Murrow trying to balance an ashtray on the thin arms of a chair. When I asked about Walter Cronkite the response from Frank seemed to sum up the way he viewed most of the public names we easily recognize.

“They did not awe me, they put their pants on like any other man.”

When making an inquiry about Pat Nixon, Frank said, “I only knew of her”.

At one point I told him that anyone who knew Edward Murrow, Walter Cronkite, and Richard Nixon is always welcome at our home!

James Wilson, Gregory Humphrey, and Frank Shakespeare

Sitting there that day talking with him I wished it was a decade earlier so that the sharp recollections of a man who had lived and seen so so much history could have been captured on tape.

Though he was an unassuming man, history almost begs us to better know his views and perspectives. The sharper edges he required to navigate corporate boards or be heard in a political campaign, or parry with others at the Vatican as the Cold War was at a pivotal point is part of why a deep-diving series of interviews should have been conducted. How did it all look for Shakespeare decades later in the rearview mirror?

I know who would have been an ideal interviewer, too. Me. After all, the intersections of his life are the ones that I have concentrated on with books and history for the past 40 years. Frank and I would have had a delightful dialogue. I just know it. He enjoyed my coffee-making skills, too. His request was for some sugar and cream in the cup. (I admit to taking odd contemporaneous notes.)

When he was on our Madison isthmus lawn it was not my first awareness of the man or the part he played in Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign. After all, I am a Nixon history buff. I had Joe McGinniss’ book on my shelves, The Selling Of The President 1968, which starts out with the first paragraph featuring none other than Frank Shakespeare.

McGinniss at the time was a 26-year-old former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who functioned as part of the Nixon campaign team. What he witnessed in that campaign and the strategy for winning national support was illuminating at the time his book was published and serves now as a place in history where one can see a time before the ’68 race, and a time after.

Shakespeare was a professional image shaper who surely knew full well that the line from McGinniss about Nixon in the 1960 presidential election was true. “He failed because he had no press to lie for him and did not know how to use television to lie about himself. The camera portrayed him clearly. America took its Richard Nixon straight and did not like the taste.”

Page 60 “The Selling Of The President’

Another up-and-coming voice in conservative media who played an instrumental role in Nixon’s victory was Roger Ailes, who later in life would define factless television disguised as news. In 1968, however, he produced Nixon’s TV shows which were slick staged ‘town hall meetings’ that were as prefabricated as the cheap homes then sprouting up around the nation. Over the years, I have likened those 30 minutes of hokum as being a third cousin to Col. Tom Parker placing a live electric wire under hay so fairgoers would think chickens really danced.

Shakespeare was the one, as Rick Perlstein writes in Nixonland, who brought Ailes into the fold of the campaign.

Ailes and Shakespeare well understood how Nixon would need to look, stand, be lighted, and smoothed over for an electorate who knew the candidate all too well. Teddy White offers his readers in Making Of The President 1968 the view from Shakespeare that Nixon they presented to the nation was “spontaneous, with no rehearsal, in a serious posture with a mixed bag of questioners…”

As a decades-long Richard Nixon history buff the manner that he was marketed to the public in the 1968 presidential campaign, much akin to toothpaste or ketchup, was a defining moment in the further weakening of our politics. While messaging and artifice have long been political tools–who can forget the rail-splitting image of Abraham Lincoln–I have long hoped that our elections could be elevating experiences. The 1968 Nixon campaign was the exact opposite. And, of course, the history of the Nixon Administration shows what happens when character considerations are tossed aside for the salesmanship of a candidate.

So how then would one of the architects of the ’68 Nixon effort reflect on how our national politics emerged in the presidential cycles which followed? That is what I would have truly enjoyed discovering in an oral history with Frank Shakespeare.

Frank Shakespeare surely had a deep and abiding love for our nation, just as it is fair to say the television era changed and shaped our politics in detrimental ways. It was that thumbprint on history that I wished we had the chance for him to review.

And so it goes.

Gregory Humphrey History Minute Video: Inauguration Day And Death 1853

My 60-second history video. Few know this story about President Franklin Pierce and former First Lady Abigail Fillmore. Read more history and never be bored again. But first, watch this fast story.

Another Low In American Politics, But We Now Expect Such Behavior From Donald Trump

Once again America was lowered to the basement of human depravity.  

While most of the nation spent days leading up to Thanksgiving making pies and perhaps polishing some silverware Donald Trump was rubbing shoulders with Nick Fuentes, a Nazi sympathizer, and holocaust denier.  When not chatting it up at his Florida home with someone who has equated 6 million exterminated Jews with burned cookies in the oven, Trump was breaking bread with another dinner guest, Kanye West, who is an acknowledged antisemite.  

It does not take this little site on the internet to remind readers that President Jimmy Carter built homes in his post-White House years. Or that his fellow officeholder, George Bush, takes an empty canvas and creates painted art, while Bill Clinton focuses on world problems, and Barack Obama works to create his presidential center as an engine for economic gain on the South Side of Chicago. All that is in sharp contrast to Trump intentionally stirring the vilest stew of violence, hatred, and bigotry that was unleashed in the 20th century.

When I heard the news over the holiday weekend, I wish able to say I was stunned.  Or surprised.  I wish there was a reaction other than feeling, well, this is the latest bizarre and tragic consequence of elevating Trump in our political culture. The thought that came to mind upon hearing the NPR news report was recalling a book published this summer that reported about Trump’s desire to have generals like the ones who had answered to Adolf Hitler.  The following quote comes from “The Divider: Trump in the White House,” by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser.

“Why can’t you be like the German generals?” Mr. Trump told John Kelly, his chief of staff, preceding the question with an obscenity….”

I pondered the impact of Trump’s dinner last week on the nation.  What it says about our citizenry where there is still a very sizable and energized segment who would follow him off a cliff if he said to do so.  (No one should assume he would lead the way, however.) Historians will long study how so many susceptible people were lured into the bizarre cult of Trump.

Trump’s base supporters over the past days in rural America are deflecting from his actions, trying to spin them into an event where he was hardly even aware of it having happened. It is absolutely perplexing how Trump can still command their allegiance when it so sharply flies in the face of a chapter of history that is devastatingly painful.  Yet for Trump, it just was something else to cheapen with his disdain and low-brow character. It is almost chilling to consider that Trump would not even know how to talk about the memories and messages of those who walked to their deaths in places like Auschwitz or Dachau.  

I still believe in a political class that is defined by character, ethics, morals, and values. I guess that results from when I was born and the history I read and better try to understand. We can have sharp clashes over fiscal policy and the size of our footprint on the international stage, but when we witness the vilest and most absurd behavior from a pol as we did last week, and especially one who sat in the Oval Office, there is no other path the majority of the populace can take than one of complete and utter repudiation.

A few notables within the Republican Party found their resolve on Monday and spoke to the deplorable behavior of Donald Trump. We need an avalanche of their fellow party members to do the same, Every reporter needs to press elected officials to go on the record and speak about an ex-president sitting for dinner with a holocaust denier.

Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy stated: “President Trump hosting racist antisemites for dinner encourages other racist antisemites. These attitudes are immoral and should not be entertained. This is not the Republican Party.”

“There’s no bottom to the degree which he’s willing to degrade himself and the country for that matter. Having dinner with those people was disgusting”, said Utah Senator Mitt Romney.

Senate Minority Whip John Thune said of Trump breaking bread with a Nazi and Holocaust denier: “Well, that’s just a bad idea on every level. I don’t know who was advising him on his staff, but I hope that whoever that person was got fired.”

Many in the nation will wonder why an aide needs to be upbraided when we all know the only reasonable reaction Trump need to have taken upon seeing a Nazi sympathizer in his home was to point to the door and say, “get the HELL out!”

Where Did President Lincoln Stand For Gettysburg Address?

Several years ago, during a 10-day trip to Washington, D.C., James and I took a bus tour to Gettysburg, the most iconic Civil War battlefield. I recall as a teenager reading about the high numbers of battlefield casualties in some of the fighting during the Civil War.  I recall my sensations upon learning for the first time about the piles of bodies at Gettysburg, reading journal entries from the townspeople about the stench and the burial trenches. Trying to process the enormity of the number of deaths is something that we all came to terms with during our history classes.

Over 50,000 Americans were killed in those massive battles that spanned for days on a plot of land in Pennsylvania. Over the decades the war, and the cause for it, have become better understood with many books and lectures.  When I had the opportunity to walk the battlefield and listen to a Civil War military expert speak of the efforts to secure a victory for the North the weight of the war from those days in 1863 when the heat of the sun and the smell of cannons along with the sound of muskets firing as men groaned in death came very much back to life.  It is impossible to stand on that ground and not feel it all.

James Wilson at Gettysburg

I had read long ago of the moldering bodies that still were present from the July battle when President Lincoln gave his address in November 19, 1863. (I write this post on the anniversary.) We passed the hotel where he stayed and saw the second-story window of the room where he finished his short speech. But to see the bluffs and hear the stories of battle and grasp how the winds blew that day and carried the smoke of cannon and musket, as bodies lay strewn about was most powerful.

While I have always loved history, my least favorite part of the past is the military engagements that occurred on the battlefield. How the people of the small town felt and reacted, or how the news of the battles was sent to Washington, and of course, the simple short, and exceedingly powerful message from President Lincoln afterward are the aspects of the story that most interested me. But to see the bluffs and hear the stories of battle and grasp how the winds blew that day and carried the smoke of cannon and musket, as bodies lay strewn about was most powerful.

Like everyone else that day as our tour bus moved about and made for stops the question most asked was exactly where did President Lincoln stand when he delivered the Gettysburg Address? The speech, which ran a mere 272 words, took about two minutes. It went so fast that the three photographers in attendance, “with their clunky wet-plate cameras, missed the moment entirely”.

The most famous of the photographs is attributed to David Bachrach, who was positioned in front of the speaker’s platform. Discovered in the 1950s by Josephine Cobb, an archivist at the National Archives, it remains the only undisputed image of Lincoln at Gettysburg — seemingly taking his seat on the platform hatless, his head bowed.

The photographers may have missed Lincoln’s speech, but sometimes they inadvertently captured one another, providing clues to their exact position. During a preview of his research, Oakley pulled up one of Gardner’s shots, zooming in on a window in the Evergreen gatehouse to point out a blurred figure and a box: the photographer Peter Weaver with his camera, he said.

Since the 19th century, scholars and armchair obsessives alike have pored over every aspect of the Gettysburg Address, from the meaning of its soaring rhetoric to the kind of paper Lincoln drafted it on.

Now, a researcher claims to have settled a question that can be seen, quite literally, as foundational: Where exactly did Lincoln stand?

Since the 1990s, visitors to Gettysburg National Cemetery have been told the hallowed spot actually lies just over an iron fence, in Evergreen Cemetery, the town’s burial ground. But Christopher Oakley, a former Disney animator turned Civil War sleuth, has combined intense analysis of 19th-century photographs with 21st-century 3-D modeling software to argue that Lincoln was standing inside the national cemetery after all.

To build his 3-D model, he entered a 3-D map made from geographic information system, or G.I.S., data and a Google satellite map into Maya, and then layered in the historical photographs. After years of trial and error, he said, when he toggled between each photograph and the corresponding camera positions in his model, everything finally lined up.

His research was unveiled on Friday at the Lincoln Forum, a gathering of some 300 scholars and enthusiasts who meet in Gettysburg each year, during the run-up to the official commemoration of Lincoln’s address on Nov. 19. As he clicked through his presentation, there were whispered “Wows,” capped with a standing ovation.

A diagram by Oakley, showing where the photographers who took four of the six known photographs of the cemetery dedication were standing. The indicate the positions for Peter Weaver (1 and 2), Alexander Gardner (3) and David Bachrach (4). Oakley’s placement of the platform is visible in the center.

The skillset and determination that Oakley has employed allow for countless history buffs to take another large step forward in better understanding a question that has long been the center of debate in academic circles. There have been more books written about Abe Lincoln than any other president, and something tells me this research and its conclusions will make for yet one more. As it should!

Gregory Humphrey and his favorite president.

UW-Madison Professor Places Gun Culture Roots In Post-Civil War South

The first thing I ever wrote to be published was a Letter to the Editor of my county newspaper lamenting the lack of gun control. I was a high school teenager who found it hard to fathom the stunning number of handgun deaths in the nation.  Several decades later and the search for an understanding of our gun culture continues to vex me.  I still am not able to square the tens of thousands of lives killed each year due to guns with a legislative process impotent to enacting meaningful corrective measures.  

How the culture for gun madness was born and how it took root in such a powerful way has intrigued me since I used a Smith Corona to type (or was that pecking) my letter to the Waushara Argus. On Sunday, an insightful and thought-provoking article from Nick Buttrick, assistant professor of psychology at UW-Madison, was published in the Wisconsin State Journal which demonstrates from a data-loaded historical perspective how and where our national gun culture took birth.

The South was a very dangerous place after the war. More than half a million men, with their weapons, returned to what rapidly became one of the most heavily armed societies in the world, and one of the most violent: The murder rate in the South during the 1870s was an estimated 18 times higher than in New England — largely driven by white men killing each other.

Elite white Southerners considered the empowerment of the previously enslaved population an existential threat and worked to repress Black political power as completely as possible.

As part of that project, white Southern leaders explicitly anchored the protection of their way of life in the private ownership of firearms, arguing that guns protected white people from an illegitimate government unwilling to keep them safe. The huge supply of firearms from the war made this argument salient.

Using data from the 1860 census, nationally representative survey data from more than 3.5 million Americans, and records of every death in the U.S. from 1996 to 2016, we found that the higher the rate of enslavement in a county in 1860 — i.e., where nascent Black political power was more threatening to post-Civil War white elites — the higher the rate of gun ownership today.

In other words, counties with a historical prevalence of slavery had both the most guns and the tightest link between guns and feelings of safety. These are the places where contemporary American gun culture took root.

Mass shootings and obituaries from gun violence are now part of the fabric of daily life in this country. While it is important to place our current dilemma into a historical construct the lay of the land does not allow one to think it leads toward an enlightened and credible congressional majority that works in concert with needed gun control measures.

There was no way as a teenager to imagine that mass murder from high-powered military-type rifles of the kind used in Las Vegas when 58 people were killed could ever occur. When I sat at our family kitchen table and typed out the newspaper letter it would have been hard for me to believe that, Telemachus Orfanos, a man who escaped with his life from that mass shooting would die in another mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, California. The fact that a person can find themselves in the midst of two separate mass shootings in America underscores where the gun culture born in the South has placed our nation.