Monthly Archives: August 2012

Dead Folks 2011: World Affairs/Newsmakers

Dead Folks 2011: World Affairs/Newsmakers

January 26, 2012

Moammar Gadhafi

For 42 years, dictator Moammar Gadhafi survived numerous coups and assassination attempts to rule Libya with a brutal fist. In 1969, the 27-year-old military officer led a bloodless rebellion to take control of the country. Libya’s rich oil deposits became Colonel Gadhafi’s trump card, a resource that gave Gadhafi a global importance he otherwise would never have achieved. President Reagan called him “the mad dog of the Middle East.” Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat referred to him as “that crazy Libyan.”

Gadhafi lived in a huge white tent that he took everywhere. He financed terrorist groups, including the Irish Republican Army and guerilla outfits in Africa. His tyrannical government was responsible for the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 passengers. Interrogations and executions were telecast nationally to instill fear in Libyan citizens. Gadhafi usually inflicted violence on the terrorized populace every decade to insure his control. The Libyan army consisted of soldiers imported from Sudan, Chad, and Liberia. A 2011 Libyan uprising finally deposed the tyrant. An intense manhunt for Gadhafi highlighted daily news programs before he was finally located and shot to death.

The dictator had his particulars: He renamed the months, changing February to “Lights” and August to “Hannibal,” for example. Anyone with more than $3,000 in their bank account was considered excessively wealthy and had to surrender the excess to the state. Gadhafi once banned sport utility vehicles, then lifted the ban, only to later reinstate it, forcing those who had purchased SUVs to hide them. He once demanded that all Libyans raise chickens to promote self-sufficiency—even those living in apartments.

Gadhafi had a unique sense of fashion; his colorful robes and funky matching caps established his own ethnic style. One of his more fascinating indulgences was a unique bodyguard squad. Though Gadhafi preached that women were not equal to men, he was personally guarded by a group of machine gun-toting women sporting camouflage fatigues, high-heeled sandals, and red nail polish. (69, killed by Libyan rebels) —ER

David Broder

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For four decades, Broder was a political reporter and columnist for The Washington Post who could frequently be found on political news shows such as “Meet the Press.” Reflecting his belief “that not all wisdom resides in Washington,” Broder often reported on state and local politics. He was the first to reveal that Senator Edmund Muskie, after growing weary of attacks on his family, cried during a press conference. Muskie denied crying but the image of him as emotionally weak cost him the Democratic presidential nomination to George McGovern in 1972. (81, diabetes) —ER

Dr. Jack Kevorkian

A medical pathologist dubbed “Dr. Death” by his detractors, Dr. Jack Kevorkian assisted more than one hundred terminally ill people in ending their lives by suicide. A fearless rebel in the face of lawsuits and public outcry against his deeds, he was finally convicted of second-degree murder in 1999 for the last assisted suicide in which he was involved. He spent eight years in prison. Regardless of their feelings for Kevorkian, critics and supporters agree that his efforts created improved hospice care and better pain management for dying patients.

Kevorkian was prompted to devote himself to helping the terminally ill after he received national attention for a 1984 speech. He addressed the California Legislature in support of a bill containing his proposal that death-row inmates be given the choice of dying by anesthesia if they allowed their organs to be donated. After visiting the Netherlands in 1987 to learn how the Dutch performed assisted suicide, Kevorkian came back to Detroit to open a clinical practice that included “death counseling.”

Beginning in 1990, Kevorkian began assisting the dying, estimating that some 130 patients used his procedure over the next eight years. Kevorkian continued his efforts despite having his medical license revoked and state legislatures passing laws forbidding assisted suicide. Frequently arrested for short periods of time, he would leave jail and go immediately to assist in another suicide. While incarcerated, he went on hunger strikes. He could be quick-tempered in defending his beliefs and on occasion fought with arresting officers. In 1995, the American Medical Association referred to him as “a reckless instrument of death” who “poses a great threat to the public.” Kevorkian lived a simple life, often wearing second-hand clothes purchased at a Salvation Army thrift store. He rarely dated and never married.

The first person to use Dr. Kevorkian’s “suicide machine” was an Oregon teacher suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. The procedure took place in Kevorkian’s rusting 1968 Volkswagen van at a campground near his home. The doctor called police immediately after the woman’s death and was briefly detained.

As for Dr. Kevorkian’s exit from this life, his final hours were spent listening to Bach in a hospital where he had been admitted for kidney and respiratory problems. (83, blood clot) —ER

Betty Ford

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Haunted by a condition that most families in such high-profile positions would prefer be kept under wraps, former first lady Betty Ford went public with her battle with booze and pills in the late ’70s. Her successful fight inspired Ms. Ford to open The Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California—today one of the best-known substance-abuse rehabilitation facilities in the country. The rehab hospital has attracted its fair share of celebrities, including Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli, Mary Tyler Moore, and baseball great Mickey Mantle.

Ford’s addiction to painkillers began in 1964 while recovering from a neck injury. She later began drinking heavily. Her family finally confronted her in 1978, forcing her into treatment.

Ms. Ford never shied from expressing her political opinions, which included staunch defense of the Equal Rights Amendment and legalized abortion. One of her most memorable moments came on the day after her husband was defeated for the presidency by Jimmy Carter in 1976. President Ford had lost his voice, so the First Lady read The President’s concession speech for him. (93) -ER

Lana Peters

The only daughter and last surviving child of brutal Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, Peters defected in 1967, 14 years after her father’s death. Born Svetlana Stalina, she became Lana Peters after getting married in America. Peters moved frequently, seemingly unsettled and desperate, and sampled religions from Hinduism to Christian Science. In 1984, she moved back to the Soviet Union but returned to the U.S. two years later. She reportedly spent her final years in poverty, living in a cabin with no electricity in Wisconsin, though there were rumors she was in a Roman Catholic convent in Switzerland. (85, colon cancer) —ER

Ed Zigo

A veteran New York City detective, Ed Zigo helped track down serial killer (and postal worker) David Berkowitz, also known as Son of Sam, through a parking ticket. For one year beginning in July of 1976, terror gripped New York City when six murders were committed by an unknown assailant who called himself “Son of Sam.” The killer began correspondence with authorities, writing long letters that referenced vampires and monsters, warning that he would strike again. The night he murdered his sixth victim, a woman walking her dog noticed an officer ticketing two cars.

Zigo and other detectives searched every parking ticket issued in the area near the time of the murder. When they came up with a license plate number registered in the name of Berkowitz, Zigo felt he had a solid lead. Zigo remembered thinking “What is a Jewish guy from Yonkers doing parked in an Italian neighborhood at two in the morning?”

Zigo checked out Berkowitz’s address, where he found the ticketed car with a rifle in the backseat and a note in the glove compartment threatening to attack a disco. Zigo noticed that the handwriting on the note was similar to that of the threatening letters sent by Son of Sam. Berkowitz was arrested and immediately confessed to the crimes. (84, cancer) —ER


The most despised dog in the world, Trouble was an irritable Maltese that inherited Leona Helmsley’s $12 million fortune. Trouble’s yearly expenses were reported to be $190,000, of which $100,000 was spent on security due to numerous death and kidnapping threats. When the dog traveled, it flew under the alias “Bubbles” to shake off those tempted to dognap her. Helmsley demanded that everyone call the dog “Princess” instead of “the dog.” Trouble was a notorious biter, and even left a few scars on Helmsley. The dog lived on a diet of crab cakes, cream cheese, and steamed vegetables with chicken, fed by hand, when Ms. Helmsley was alive. After Helmsley’s death, Trouble ate canned dog food. (12) —ER

Singrai Soren

Few will argue that Singrai Soren didn’t have it coming. Soren raised and trained cockfighting roosters in India. Combat roosters are usually given at least an hour between bouts but Soren forced his bird back into the ring only minutes after its first fight. The rooster tried to escape the fighting pit repeatedly, only to have the owner place it back into the ring. The angry bird finally attacked Soren, slitting his throat and killing the man with the razor-sharp blade that all fighting roosters wear on one leg when in battle. —ER

J. Paul Getty III

It wasn’t just bad luck that Jean Paul Getty III was kidnapped at Rome’s Piazza Farnese in November of 1973. The 16-year-old heir to the Getty Oil fortune had also been recently expelled from boarding school, and had joked about faking his own kidnapping for money. The postmen of Italy were also on strike, which made it difficult for Getty’s father to eventually receive the ransom demand for $17 million. Jean Paul Getty II couldn’t get that kind of money together himself, and his own father thought it was a bad idea to negotiate with kidnappers. Things became more urgent when the criminals finally sent a human ear to an Italian newspaper. It was November, and the kidnappers were running out of patience. The accompanying letter announced that J. Paul III would be losing his other ear in 10 more days, to be followed by other body parts.

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Getty Sr. decided that he’d be willing to give the kidnappers $2.2 million for his grandson. That was the maximum amount he could pay and still claim a tax deduction. Anything more than that was to be considered a loan to Getty II at 4% interest. A deal was finally negotiated to have Getty III released for $2.9 million. Payment was made and the teenager was released in Southern Italy that December.

The kidnappers were later caught, and revealed to be a mix of local lowlifes and some crime bosses. It was Italy, so the crime bosses were acquitted and very little of the ransom money was found.

Meanwhile, things would get even more tragic for Getty III. He was pretty much disinherited after marrying his pregnant older girlfriend shortly after the kidnapping. He had a son—who would grow up to be the actor Balthazar Getty—but Getty III would soon develop some serious drug problems. His penchant for mixing whisky, cocaine, and heroin put him into a coma in 1981. He lost oxygen to his brain and ended up as a nearly blind paraplegic. J. Paul would later have to sue his billionaire father to get assistance for medical bills. (That was particularly sad since Getty II had spent plenty of his own young years in a drug-induced haze.) Getty III would eventually live (so to speak) off his own very comfortable inheritance, but always seemed like a one-man Getty curse. At least he didn’t pass the curse on to his kid. The worst that’s happened to Balthazar was that he was caught sleeping around with Sienna Miller. (54, undisclosed but inevitable) —JRT

Out of Time

A photo exhibit details the unusual history of a black family in early 20th-century rural Alabama.
By Ed Reynolds

Geneva and Mitch Shackelford with unidentified child. (click for larger version)



August 09, 2012Through September 14, the downtown Birmingham Public Library is currently showcasing Both Sides of the Lens: Photographs by the Shackelford Family, Fayette County, Alabama (1900-1935). Featured on the library’s fourth floor gallery are 40 prints selected from 850 photos in the library’s Shackelford archives. Also on hand—and well worth taking time to peruse—are two thick notebooks that include dozens of archived Shackelford images not on display in the gallery. 

Mitch Shackelford was born during the Civil War. Adopted by a white family that he reportedly stayed in touch with for many years, Shackelford left home at age 21, eventually going to work for Southern Railroad. He and his wife Geneva moved to Covin, Alabama, in rural Fayette County, where they built a home that housed a couple of generations of Shackelfords. The residence became a boarding house and overnight rest stop for white and black travelers.

The Shackelfords were an oddity in the South in the early 20th century: an affluent black family with voting rights that owned vast quantities of land. Mitch and Geneva’s children found wealth by owning and operating syrup mills and sawmills as well as by farming and continuing to purchase land. As an entrepreneurial sideline, they maintained a commercial photography business, primarily making portraits. Clients included black and white area residents. Portraits were taken by two generations of Shackelfords in an era when stereotypical, racist images of blacks were prevalent in society. As noted in the exhibit: “The Shackelford photographs offer a dynamic and rarely seen depiction of the African-American experience in rural Alabama and show black people living full and vibrant lives in the face of the racial and socioeconomic oppression of the Jim Crow era.”

Birmingham native Andrew Nelson, currently at the University of Maryland, College Park, is largely responsible for the show. “This is the picture that started the journey that ended up being this exhibition,” Nelson explains, gesturing towards a photo of a nine-piece brass band that included three of Mitch Shackelford’s children. “A little over a year ago I started work on my Ph.D. dissertation and I had a conversation with a man named Joey Brackner, who is the director of the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture. Joey knew I was looking for pictures of old musicians. He told me about a collection that he had bought at the Bessemer Flea market over 20 years ago and donated to the Birmingham Public Library.” Nelson’s dissertation will be published as a book. A significant portion details the history of the brass band pictured in the collection.

The only thing known about the pictures was that they were taken in Fayette County sometime early in the 20th century. Nelson became fascinated with the images and began noticing the same house in many of the shots—the Shackelford home. He was determined to discover who had taken the photos. He went in search of the house, recognizing that his chances of finding it were slim due to the wooden structure having been built in 1900. He found a photograph of the house in the library in Fayette County as well as a map of the road where the house once stood. Eventually, he met Mitch and Geneva Shackelford’s great granddaughter, Annie Shackelford, who lives in the area. A friendship was forged. The Shackelford photo collection provided Annie with her first look at her great-grandparents. Annie Shackelford’s parents lived in the house until the early 1960s, before it began to deteriorate.

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The Shackelford family developed their photos in an attic darkroom. Great-grandson Marvin Shackelford, of Alabaster, recalls playing there as a child. “We did not really know what it was all about,” he says. “We weren’t allowed up there. My boy cousins and my brothers and I would sneak up there and kind of snoop around a little bit. And I remember those glass plates [negatives] and everything, just like it was yesterday. But we didn’t have a clue what it was, really!”

Marvin explains that his grandfather was always helping the children with their cameras. “He would always be the one that would give us pointers when we had our little Polaroid-type cameras,” he recalls. “Like if we were facing the sun or whatever with the lens, he’d say, ‘No, no, no. You need to get the sun at your back,’ and that kind of thing.”

The photographs the Shackelfords made of neighbors wearing their Sunday finest contradicted the often demeaning stereotypical images of black Americans in the first half of the 20th century. “What a profound service it is that the Shackelfords provided the people in their community and beyond, to be able to represent themselves,” Andrew Nelson explains, calling the family “renaissance men.”

The brass band photo that first attracted Nelson to the collection indeed speaks volumes about the Shackelfords and other black residents socializing with whites in Fayette County in the early 1900s. The sign on the bass drum in the picture reads: “Big concert tonight at the Covin School-House given by the brass band beginning at 7:30. Seats for our white friends. Admission only 10 cents.”

This brass band, of which three Shackelford children were members, poses in front of the Shackelford house. (click for larger version)








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