The Giant and the Midget

October 28, 2009 at 3:32 pm (Aesthetics, Carnival, Modern World, The Federal Reserve, The Great Depression, Women) (, , , , , , , , )

In the wake of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was desperate to garner public and political support for The New Deal, an ambitious program that, he hoped, would pump much needed stimulation into the United States’ stumbling economy. In 1933 the Senate Banking Committee held a series of hearings to investigate the financial practices of banking giant J.P. Morgan, Jr., who controlled the corporate behemoth founded by his father, and was also instrumental in establishing the Federal Reserve in 1913. Morgan’s high profile set the stage for his testimony to receive wide media coverage. This may have been the first event, in fact, to be dubbed a “media circus”.

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John Pierpont Morgan, 1867-1943.

Coincidentally, the Ringling Brothers Circus was in Washington during the dates of Morgan’s testimony. Capitalizing on this peculiar opportunity, the circus’ press agent arranged for one of its performers, a 27-inch-tall midget named Lya Graf, to be present at the public hearings. When Graf was awkwardly introduced to Morgan, she hopped onto his lap and sat like a child. This allowed for a most interesting photograph to be taken. Depicting a physically deformed sideshow performer sitting on the lap of a man who epitomized wealth and corporate greed, this image captures in a whimsical yet biting way the disparities between the rich and the poor in the United States during the height of corporate capitalism in the early 20th Century. Simultaneously silly and grotesque, the contrast between Graf and Morgan visually expresses the vast inequalities that defined the economic state of America in 1933. It was an image that spoke volumes.

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The contrast between Morgan and Graf, most strikingly that of their sizes and implicit power, acted as a real life political cartoon, simultaneously explaining and satirizing the inequalities that defined Depression Era America. The popularity of this photo improved Morgan’s public image and turned Graf into a media darling, if only briefly.

This image resonates particularly well in modern day America, in which class division and unchecked corporate accumulation is reminiscent of the Depression Era. Imagine how poignant a photograph of Warren Buffet cradling an illegal Mexican laborer would seem in light of the current social and economic climate.

Some Further Reading:

An excerpt from a book on the Morgan family that discusses this incident

An article focusing on Graf and her role in this photograph

A succinct introduction to Roosevelt, the Depression, and the New Deal

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Oliver, the Humanzee

October 1, 2009 at 2:48 pm (Aesthetics, Animals, Cryptozoology, Evolution, Primatology, Sexuality, Women) (, , , , , , )

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In 1960, in the African nation of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), a peculiar discovery was made. It was a young male chimpanzee with a strikingly humanoid face and the propensity for bipedal locomotion (a trait previously unobserved amongst chimpanzees). This bizarre animal found its way into the care of American animal trainers Frank and Janet Berger who dubbed their new pet Oliver.

Oliver exhibiting his characteristic bipedal locomotion. He was rarely seen walking on his knuckles.

Oliver exhibiting his characteristic upright stance. He was rarely seen walking on his knuckles.

Oliver showed a strong desire to adapt as many human affects as possible, including smoking cigars, shunning the company of other chimpanzees, and even making sexual overtures toward Janet. When put on display in the public eye, Oliver became a media sensation, and was widely believed to be some sort of missing link or human-chimpanzee hybrid. Genetic testing did in fact reveal that Oliver possessed forty-eight chromosomes, one more than is common in chimpanzees, and one less than is common in humans. In lieu of any further discussion of Oliver, I have included below the complete documentary produced by the Discovery Channel in 2006 exploring this strange creature and his unique story.

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