- - Wednesday, July 3, 2013

You’d think a country celebrating its 237th birthday would have some basic facts about its history and geography nailed down.

But a recent dust-up between Connecticut and North Carolina about who first flew an airplane shows there are still a number of juicy historical debates within the American family to chew over along with the hot dogs and sweet corn this Fourth of July.

Big questions — What caused the Civil War? Did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone? Who really invented baseball? — naturally generate vast reams of historical argument, but even smaller matters of simple fact can spark controversy, from where the president on the $20 bill was actually born to which state can claim to be the birthplace of one of the country’s two major political parties.

The most recent dispute takes on two icons in the pantheon of American tinkerers — Orville and Wilbur Wright.

Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy stirred up a historical hornet’s next late last month, endorsing a drive by state lawmakers that rejects the long-standing narrative that the Wright brothers were the first to fly a heavier-than-air powered aircraft in 1903, contending the first flight actually took place two years earlier in the Nutmeg State, not over the dunes of Kitty Hawk, N.C.

The governor on June 25 signed into law a measure rejecting the Wright brothers’ claim, citing new evidence published in March by Australian historian John Brown. Mr. Brown contends the credit belongs to German immigrant Gustave Whitehead, who allegedly flew on Aug. 14, 1901 in Bridgeport, Conn. — two years before the Wright brothers’ 1903 flight.

Mr. Brown’s brief includes a blurry photograph of Whitehead’s 1901 flight, enlarged by 3,500 percent, and numerous old newspaper accounts of the event. He published everything on the website gustave-whitehead.com.

“This is clear and convincing evidence,” Mr. Brown said. “If this was a court case about a crime committed in D.C. and you had 17 witnesses, 14 of them state under oath that they saw it happen, and there was a video surveillance camera with a blurred image, there’s no court anywhere that wouldn’t convict them.”

Mr. Brown’s claims have been endorsed by Paul Jackson, the editor-in-chief of the authoritative Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft. “The Wrights were right; but Whitehead was ahead,” wrote Mr. Jackson in the foreword of the 100th edition of Jane’s.

“Our license plate should say, ‘Firster in Flight,’” said Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch — a dig on North Carolina’s license plates, which are proudly stamped with “First in Flight.”

Mr. Brown pointed to a contract between the Smithsonian and the Wright brothers that required the Smithsonian to recognize the Wright brothers as first in flight in order to obtain the Wright’s plane in 1948.

But Tom Crouch, senior aeronautics curator for the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, said the contract was necessary and logical because of conflicting “first in flight” claims back then from other aviators.

“I don’t regard it as binding. … If I ever thought there was evidence that somebody had made a significant sustained power-controlled flight before the Wright brothers, I’d say so,” Mr. Crouch said. “But that hasn’t happened yet, and Whitehead doesn’t even come close.”

Mr. Crouch said Mr. Whitehead continued to build flying machines after 1901, but not one of them ever left the ground.

“What, did he forget how to fly?” Mr. Crouch said. “When you look at the details of the Whitehead claims, I think it falls apart like a house of cards.”

Presidential mysteries

The modern age has few secrets. We know about President Obama’s experiments with marijuana as a young man and the juicy details of President Clinton’s scandalous affair with Monica Lewinsky.

But back in the day, the personal lives of our presidents were less clear. Even though President Andrew Jackson claimed Tennessee as his home state after moving there in his 20s, North and South Carolina still quarrel over the honor of being the birthplace of the seventh American president.

In 1824, Jackson wrote in a letter that he was born in South Carolina at his uncle’s plantation. But another source said the birth tool place at another uncle’s home in North Carolina, according to Jackson’s mother. Both states built memorials to Old Hickory, with the Andrew Jackson State Park in South Carolina and a statue of Jackson at the North Carolina State Capitol in Raleigh.

On the other end of the life spectrum, when President Warren Harding died Aug. 2, 1923, he had been recovering from pneumonia. Multiple physicians could not agree on the specific cause of death (although most cited heart failure) and when first lady Florence Harding refused to permit an autopsy, rumors began to swirl.

Theories about the scandal-plagued Harding’s sudden death in San Francisco, one historian noted, range from “the straightforward and plausible to the speculative and bizarre,” including negligent homicide, suicide and murder. Flamboyant private detective and con artist Gaston Means penned a 1930 best-seller that all but accused Florence Harding of murdering her husband, with an assist from the couple’s eccentric personal physician, Charles E. Sawyer. The purported motivation: Mrs. Harding’s rage at her husband’s corruption and marital infidelity, and a desire to protect his reputation.

The Navy’s first berth?

No less than five American cities put in a claim to being the birthplace of the U.S. Navy.

The Navy claims Oct. 13, 1775, as its day of its founding, when a resolution was passed in Philadelphia to obtain two armed vessels, according to the Navy’s history page. However, official naval histories shy away from naming any one place as its birthplace because many towns apparently had a hand in the service’s creation.

Several towns other than Philadelphia claim the honor of “birthplace of the Navy.” Providence, R.I., claims the title because the establishment of a Navy was first officially proclaimed there. Two Massachusetts cities claim the title because George Washington’s first warship, the “Hannah,” was launched in Beverly but owned by residents of neighboring Marblehead. And the New York town of Whitehall has lodged its own claim to fame because several naval vessels were built there in 1776 and later saw action in the Revolutionary War.

The Navy’s website takes an inclusive angle, saying “perhaps it would be historically accurate to say that America’s Navy had many ‘birthplaces.’” But while the Navy seems to side with the Philadelphia claim due to its official birth date, the U.S. Congress officially declared Whitehall the Navy’s birthplace in 1965.

“I had no idea about that,” Navy veteran Alexander Rice said about the conflicting claims. “Personally, if I had to choose, I would pick Philadelphia because that’s where the resolution was made and that’s where the capital of the time was. … That makes it the official place as far as I’m concerned.”

The first Republicans

The first stirrings of the movement that grew to be today’s Republican Party are also in dispute. Party historians can’t say for certain where the party got its start, although they’re pretty sure it was somewhere in Wisconsin. The eastern Wisconsin town of Ripon claims the Republican Party started at a schoolhouse there on March 20, 1854, when residents gathered and pledged to fight against the spread of slavery. In 1974, the “Little White Schoolhouse” became a national landmark.

But the claim is not undisputed. Many New Hampshire politicians insist the Republican Party can trace its origins to a meeting organized by abolitionist Amos Tuck on Oct. 12, 1853, in Exeter.

“New Hampshire is proud to be the birthplace of the Republican Party,” the state’s Republican Party proclaimed in its official 2011-2012 platform. “Since that first meeting, the New Hampshire Republican Party has flourished, forming the majority in our citizen legislature for over a century.”

But seeing that the Republican National Committee, the U.S. Senate and the U.S. Postal Service have all recognized Ripon as the official GOP birthplace, Exeter’s claim remains the minority view among historians.

Dueling Dakotas

They’re natural rivals, and it’s disputed to this day which one first got its star on the American flag.

Nobody knows whether North Dakota or South Dakota became a part of the U.S. first when the two were admitted to the union in November 1889. Apparently, because the fight for precedence between the two territories was so intense, President Benjamin Harrison purposely shuffled and then blindly signed the admission papers for both states at the same time, with most of the documents covered so only the signature lines were visible.

However, North Dakota gets the official “39th state” spot while South Dakota has to settle for 40th, solely because S comes later in the alphabet.

“I think that’s kind of funny. I didn’t realize that. … I’m glad we’re first,” Williston, N.D., resident Emily Lierle said with a laugh. “This state has done a lot for my family, and a lot of families up here who can’t get work elsewhere. … There’s nothing in South Dakota.”

Sundae spat

The Dakota duel may be matched in intensity by that between Two Rivers, Wis., and Ithaca, N.Y. over who has the stronger claim to the invention of the ice cream sundae.

Ithacans, citing contemporaneous ads in the local Daily Journal and ledger books from the drugstore itself, contend the first sundae was served after weekly services to the Rev. John M. Scott, a local Unitarian minister, at the Platt & Colt Pharmacy on April 3, 1892, a combination of vanilla ice cream topped by cherry syrup and a candied cherry that the reverend suggested should be named in honor of the day on which it was first served.

Two Rivers partisans counter that the first sundae was concocted in their city 11 years earlier, served up by ice cream parlor owner Edward Berners to customer George Hallauer. Ithacans argue that the claim is only backed by a 1929 newspaper interview Berners gave in which he recalled his alleged creation four decades earlier, but the Wisconsin Historical Society has erected a marker to honor the sundae’s Dairy State roots, and the Two Rivers City Council in June 2006 even approved a slightly tongue-in-cheek resolution asking the New Yorkers to “cease and desist” from their spurious claims.

“Be it resolved,” the resolution reads in part, “that the good citizens of Ithaca are urged to henceforth direct their energies to more appropriate pursuits, like cheering on the athletic teams of Cornell University and celebrating the beauty of the Finger Lakes Region, while leaving ice cream sundaes to the town that knows them best: Two Rivers.”

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