Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Mourning Stamps and Covers

              Among people of European background, the color black is usually regarded as the color of mourning from the hanging of black crepe during the 19th century funeral held in the home, to the black dress of the widow and the black band around the widower’s arm, right on to the decoration of stationary purchased to announce the death of a loved one. Mourning covers usually show a black edge of various widths around the envelope, often are lined with black, and contain a card announcement, or a letter on black edged stationary. They were commonly used from the mid-1800s into the first quarter or so of the 1900s in the US. They were also used in other countries. At least 250 countries have passed mourning covers through their mail services. In some countries around the world, this custom did not disappear and mourning covers can be found to this day.  Some mourning covers especially include black edged stamps which commemorate the death of a well- known person honored by the stamp. On many occasions, when the interior letter is still present, there is only a brief mention of a death, or even no death is mentioned at all. The cost of mourning stationary produced this strange anomaly. Making this stationary was expensive for many people. Therefore it was not thrown away after the year of grieving was past. In order to obtain every penny of value of this precious paper, it was used for even routine communication. Even if the letter inside did announce the death, it often went on to report all sorts of other family news since these letter communications across the miles were often infrequent and precious opportunities.
              I delved into my various collections and came up with these mourning stamps edged in black. Both are from Greece.  The first set of three stamps, shown in Figure 1, was issued December 21, 1945, seven months after the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, showing a frontal portrait of the US President. The set of 3 stamps included a 30 dinar violet purple, the 60 dinar green, and the 200 dinar grey brown issue. All include in the design a narrow black rim characterizing them as mourning issues.
                                                           Figure 1: Greek FDR mourning stamps
                  Less than 2 years later, Greece developed a second mourning set, seen in Figure 2,  of  3 stamps: the 1 drachma  green, 3 drachma brown, and the 8 drachma deep blue issue of 1937 picturing Greece King George II who died April 1, 1947. They were  created by quickly overprinting the 1937 issue with new denominations, 50 drachma,  250 drachmas, and 600 drachmas respectively and with black borders(Scot 498- 500 ) Using overprinting of standard preexisting issues allows these stamps to be available rapidly after the loss of a renowned person like King George II. They were released April 6, 1947 on the day of his funeral.
                                                        Figure 2 Greek King George II stamps
              Other examples of mourning stamp issues include Yugoslavia’s King Alexander issues, Germany’s Hindenburg issue of 1934 and Belgium’s Queen Astrid memorial issue of 1935.
              Here in Figures 3-5 are two mourning covers sent to the same people about 3 months apart. The two covers have a different width of black outlining the envelope. Some people think that the mourning stationary was ordered purposefully with the width of the black lines indicating the closeness of the deceased to the sender of the mourning letter.

                                              Figure 3


                Shown slightly reduced in size in Figure 3, the first mourning cover was sent from East Orange, NJ to Rev and Mrs. John M. Thomas, 281 Springdale Ave, East Orange, NJ on Nov 22, 1899, utilizing the patriotic machine cancel Type “N” 13 star flag motif  (originated in 1894 in Boston), only used at large stationary Post Office (PO). The cover is franked with Scott US 220  - the 2 cent George Washington red stamp. The second is a smaller cover  (Figure 4) which could be classified as a  “Lady’s Cover” sent on Feb 12, 1900 from Rutland, VT, to Mrs. John M. Thomas, at the same address. This one is cancelled by the Type N machine cancel with numeral 1 signifying PO 1 in VT.   It is also franked with the 2 cent George Washington red stamp Scott 220.  On the back of the second cover (Figure 5) are two receiving stamps, Feb 13, East Orange, NJ, and the word “Received” with the numeral “1” which also may refer to the post office.

                                               Figure 4


                                                 Figure 5
  Some interesting information can be ascertained about the addressees of these mourning covers. The good Reverend John M. (Martin) Thomas was born in 1869 in Fort Covington, NY and died in 1952 in Rutland, VT. His home town, Fort Covington, is a couple miles from the Canadian border in upstate New York. His preparatory school was in Malone, NY, 20 miles south. In 1890 he graduated Middlebury College in Middlebury, VT, across Lake Champlain and south, very near Rutland, VT. In 1893 he graduated from the Union Theological Seminary in New York, married Sarah Grace Seely on May 18, 1893, and immediately took a position as Pastor of the Arlington Avenue Presbyterian Church in East Orange, NJ where he served for 15 years. It was during this time at East Orange, that he and his wife received these two mourning covers. He and his wife had 5 children. It is interesting that this man went on to become a scion in education, serving as  9th president of Middlebury College, his alma mater (1908-1921); 9th president of Penn State University, then called Penn State College (1921-1925); and 12rh president of Rutgers University in Newark, NJ (1925-1930). During those last two presidencies, he strove to move both colleges toward becoming public universities, an economic challenge that caused him to resign and move on at both places. From 1925-1930, he was vice president of the National Life Insurance Co in Montpelier, VT. But he couldn’t resist the academic life and the educational challenges. He agreed to serve as acting President of Norwich College, Northfield, VT, in 1937, and then was elected president from 1939-1944. He had written prolifically about education, especially in terms of the Middlebury’s educational vision. He served as chairman of the Vermont State Board of Education. And to add even more glory to his life, he served as US Army Chaplain for the Vermont National Guard, First Infantry, 1913 to 1914, served on the Mexican Border in July and August of 1916, and became a First Lieutenant in the US Army from 1918 to 1919. I am not sure of the connection to Rutland where he died, but that city is within 20 to 60 miles of Middlebury, Northfield, and Montpelier, the capitol of Vermont. It is also the origin of the mourning letter sent to Mrs. John Thomas. And that connection drew Reverend and university President Thomas back to Rutland where he died. Figure 6 shows President Thomas” while at Rutgers. www.rutgers.edu

                                                        Figure 6 President John Martin Thomas
        Mrs. Thomas was no slouch either. She was born Sarah Grace Seely in Middlebury, VT in 1870, the daughter of Professor Henry Martyn Seely who served as professor in the chemistry, natural history and geology departments at Middlebury College. He was also an MD and had taught medical sciences academically as well and descends from immigrants who came to the American colonies in the 1600s. Sarah Grace graduated from Middlebury in 1891 and did graduate work at Vassar College from 1891 to 1892. She was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Hawthorne and Essay Clubs of Middlebury, the Mosaic Club of East Orange and the Ethan Allen Chapter of the D.A.R.  For another thing, she served for 15 years as the wife of the Pastor of the large East Orange Presbyterian church. During this time she bore and raised 3 daughters and 2 sons.
     Both Reverend Thomas and his wife Sarah Grace were buried in the West Cemetery of Middlebury, VT where they had both gone to school, as young adults.                                         
  This research and the people I learned about are an example of how two covers, in this case, mourning covers can shed light on lives that previously were unknown to me and the significance that their lifetime accomplishments had to the local history.

       Collecting these items as a topic is not a dead-end interest. Shown in Figure 7 is a German issue from 2011 of mourning stamps which are meant to be used on mail sent at times of grief. Even though we now have the Internet, email, Facebook, and telephone, sometimes a personal handwritten note still seems the best way to communicate very heartfelt sentiments. Germany like many other countries, the US included, has provided various stamp issues that meet some of these sentimental needs. However, Germany is a rare country that meets the needs of bereavement. The motif of the stamp is the white Calla lily, known to be symbolic of mourning and expressing the solidarity with the grieving people. There is a black bar at the base of the stamp emphasizing its symbolic meaning and coordinating with the age old black bar we recognize and written about in this article.

Figure 7: German Mourning Stamp 2011

              For anyone interested in pursuing this avenue of collecting there is a topical club which specializes in these mourning stamps and covers. It is called appropriately Mourning Stamps and Covers Club. The website is http://mscc.ms              

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


     Remember the old table version of Scrabble?

     As I have mentioned before on this blog, I have a toy collection and in it are two versions of the Scrabble Board game. This history of this game like many toy histories is quite interesting and leapfrogs from one company to another. In 1938, an architect by the name of Alfred Mosher Butts created the game based on a previous game he had developed called Lexiko. In both games, Butts worked out the point values of the different letters by running a frequency analysis of letters as seen in The New York Times and other sources. He also developed the board and the style of placing the words on the board in a "crossword" style of play. He called the game "Criss-Crosswords" but he was unable to sell the game to any company of the day. He sold a few sets himself but otherwise let the issue drop for a while. Then in 1948 a resident of Newtown, CT by the name of James Brunot who owned a rare copy of Butts' game, purchased the rights for the game and allowed Butts a small royalty for each game sold. He changed the name of the game to "Scrabble" which is a word that means "to scratch frantically." He manufactured 2400 sets but lost money on them. Like many toy histories there was a big break for the game when Jack Strauss, the president of Macy's, played the game while on vacation. He liked it and placed a large order for games for Macy's which turned the money losses to profits. In 1952, Brunot could not keep up with the demand, and sold the manufacturing rights to the game to Selchow and Richter. By 1954, nearly 4 million sets had been sold. In 1955, JW Spears was selling the game in Australia and the UK, but later sold these manufacturing rights to Mattel. In 1972, Selchow and Richter purchased the trademark, but in 1984 sold out to Coleco who soon went bankrupt. Coleco's assets including Scrabble and Parcheesi were sold to Hasbro. Scrabble was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2004.

Here's a photo of the game in full play.
     If you remember from playing this game, 2 to 4 players draw 7 tiles from the 100 tile draw pile and place them in a tray in front of themselves. The play rotates in turns and each player tries to spell a word on the game board, always connecting the new word to at least one previous word on the board. This board consists of squares the size of the tiles arranged in a 15 by 15 pattern. Premium squares placed strategically through out the board provide extra points for the whole word placed using that square or extra points for a letter placed just on the marked square. Originally there were  eight dark red "triple word" squares, 17 pink "double-word" squares, 12 dark blue "triple letter" squares and 24 light blue "double-letter" squares. In 2008, Hasbro changed the colors of the premium squares to orange for TW, red for DW, blue for DL and green for TL. You play until one player has no tiles left. Then the remaining players subtract the values of their tiles from their total score and the person with the highest score wins.

     The board game and handheld tiles with tile tray are still used for tournament play. But playing this living room version of the old game leaves the players entirely to their own devices and vocabularies. There were no computers, Ipads, or Iphones that automatically came up with a game for you, either among your friends or among strangers. Your only accessory was probably a dictionary. And it was too cumbersome to use it to think of words that would fit your needs on the board. So the dictionary was only used if you wanted to challenge the word your opponent put on the board. In fact the directions say that the dictionary is only to be used in a challenge. There was such a rule. You could challenge and if you won, the opposing player lost his turn and in some rules was penalized 10 points off his score and you gained 10 points. We used to come up with the strangest words, some of them made up, but most of them only 3 or 4 letters and having to come from our own vocabulary knowledge base.

     By the way this old dictionary is a small version made to hand out as a company logo gift for Brilliant Bronze Gas Stations. My dad used to haul oil for Brilliant Bronze so he had a lot of these logo gifts. We used this little dictionary quite often when we were playing Scrabble.

     I recently read in my research about the game that at a national championship scrabble tournament in Florida in August, 2012, a young player in the 24th of 28 rounds was caught concealing blank tiles that are used as "wildcards" for any letter, by dropping them on the floor so that he could pick them up later. He was ejected and forfeited all his wins. He was a minor player. Otherwise at tournaments it is hard to cheat. No electronics are allowed in the room or on the person. The player can not use a cell phone during the tournament, No other written material is allowed either. But in smaller less important competitions people have been caught trying to "palm" or hide extra wild card tiles, so that they can use these when they really need to to make a big important word.
     There has been some difficulty getting a game of the so called Original Scrabble up on Facebook and even on other electronic media. That is because the rights to the game are so complex and different throughout the world. Simply, Mattel owns foreign rights and Hasbro owns US rights. Electronic games are played all over the world and it is difficult to control this tendency. Facebook has no border limitations. For a long time, there was a game called Scrabulous on Facebook which had enough changed rules and look to make it different from Scrabble. But now it seems some sort of agreement has been worked out and Scrabble is on Facebook.
    Well, I recently decided to play scrabble on Facebook. I thought it might be kind of fun. I opened the Facebook version of the game. And there along the side of the game board are several accessories. First there is a dictionary which you can open to check for words. Though you don't have a challenge and the computer game itself determines if your word is legal and doesn't let you play a word that doesn't exist, you have the dictionary easily available. But more than that, there are lists of all the two letter words that are legal. You can run through them on the list or you can search them by entering the first letter of the words you are searching for. So this is a little cheat gadget that comes right with the scrabble board. Wow!
     Well, I began to play with a stranger they matched me up with. And the second word out of her turn was the word 'bausond', the next word was' rhea', the third word was 'podite, and the fourth word from my opponent was 'taluks'. I didn't know what any of these words meant. I had never heard of any of them. If I had been playing the old fashioned board way, I would have challenged everyone of them. But since the computer determines if they are legal words before they are put on the board, these were legal words. What the heck is going on? I am an MD, and a fairly well read and well traveled person, and I am being overwhelmed by a stranger with these words. Something is going on. So I started searching on Google. And lo and behold, there are many other gadgets online for playing scrabble and other word games. There are several Scrabble word finders in which you enter your tile letters and any other letters you want to use in your words and all the possibilities come up. You can also find words that use the letter q, the letter z, and the letter x. And if you want to spend the time because this game or this particular play is especially important, you can even enter all the tiles that have been played on your board so far and the tiles in your hand, and the computer will come up with the best solution that uses the most tiles and scores the highest. You don't have to use your brain at all. Would you say this is cheating? It also is a very unsatisfactory way to play the game to me, but if your opponent is actually doing this, you are doomed to a loss.
     On one occasion, I got matched with someone and I didn't recognize the first word he put up there, but it looked French. When I tried to enter a word, none would work. Finally I noticed that the dictionary was different. It was a French dictionary. I was expected to play this game in French. I was trapped and I had to forfeit that game for a loss in my column. Well, chalk it all up to "the learning curve."
     The online version of the game also has a feature called a "bingo" where you win 50 extra points if you can use all of your tiles in a word. I don't think this was available in earlier board versions of the game. There are dozens of computer gadgets that list bingo combinations of letters and advise you how to play the game specifically to collect these letters, aiming for bingos to win rather than large words. Playing this way means you might have to play some single letter low scoring words in order to collect your bingo tiles. This provides a totally different way of playing and also the cheating gadgets become very useful.
     Well, I must admit that in some cases I am now using a Scrabble Word Finder to help remind me of some possible words that might work. I have no desire to enter the entire board into the computer in order to win. And I must admit that I would really rather play the old way and just depend on my inner knowledge. But apparently the use of the gadgets is so universal and ubiquitous that it is kind of a joke. You can't survive out there online without using a gadget. I think that if you are playing with friends, you should come to an agreement about which gadgets can be used, and then stick to that agreement. Since you are playing with friends, there needs to be a certain trust there and then the game can proceed amiably. But with strangers selected by the computer, you just never know what is going on.
     Well, all I can say is that I am amazed at the changes when I think back to the old board game.  Makes my Selchow and Richter sets really seem a part of my antique toy collection now.     

The Ipad version of Scrabble. Also the facebook version
 looks like this one.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Sickle Cell Disease and Forensics.

      There is a current legal case playing out in the local Milwaukee news media. A 21 year old man in the city of Milwaukee had been jailed due to unpaid parking tickets. He had no previous criminal record. On the day that he was released from jail, he apparently made a bad decision and attempted to mug an older couple who were walking down the street. He was wearing a mask and attempted to grab a purse or something. It happened that at exactly that moment, a squad car happened by and saw the event. The young man took off running putting his mask in his pocket as he ran, but was apprehended by the cops. They found the mask in his pocket and arrested him. He seemed to be resisting arrest and he had run from the police, so while cuffing him, they had him on the ground face down with his arms behind him and to hold him still one cop put his knee on his back while they cuffed him. Then the cops put the man in the back of a squad car. The suspect kept making a fuss in the back of the car and began complaining that he couldn't breath. He apparently was crying out for help. The cops thought this was still this young man who had run from them and resisted them who was now acting out in the back of the police car. They did nothing for a time. However they did have a video tape recording all this behavior in the back seat of the car. Perhaps 5 to 10 minutes passed, and then something terrible happened. The young suspect who was visibly laboring for breath on the tape, collapsed in the back of the car. At this point, the cops realized what had happened, pulled him out of the car and began CPR on him. But he died on the spot.

     There was a lot of controversy on the cause of death. At first the Medical Examiner called the death due to natural causes. An autopsy and blood samples showed that the young man had sickle cell trait, but he died from a massive sickle cell crisis. Later the ME looked at the tape and put some of the other information together and changed his decision calling the death a homicide.

     Now a decision is being made whether to charge the two officers who arrested this suspect with neglect of his well being, and being contributory to his death. They of course are currently on suspension of their duties while an investigation goes forward. The family and friends of the suspect are of course devastated and are seeking charges against the policemen. Meanwhile the tape is constantly replayed on TV and believe me it is very hard to watch. To me, a doctor, this suspect is clearly in medical trouble.

     Now to me, as an MD, the circumstances of this case are quite interesting.  First of all, he had sickle cell trait. Sickle cell disease is an inherited blood disease in which there is abnormal hemoglobin formed in the red blood cells. This abnormal hemoglobin is unstable and under circumstances when there is low oxygenation in the tissues or under illness conditions, fever, or even mental stress alone, simplistically, the abnormal hemoglobin molecules crystallize in the red blood cells and pull them into a sickle shape. Hence the name sickle cell disease. These malformed red blood cells can't pass through the tiny capillaries throughout the body and they obstruct the blood flow making the condition worse. The person in sickle cell crisis like this usually has excruciating pain in the bones and muscles, and then starts to have other organs fail due to the obstructive nature of the sickled cells. If the sickling occurs in the lungs, then oxygenation of the body would be a problem. These cells are destroyed by the sickling so over time, the person becomes anemic, that is develops a low red blood cell count because many of his red cells are destroyed and the bone marrow can't keep up with making new ones.

     Now there are two forms of the disease. The full blown sickle cell anemia occurs when the person has both genes for the abnormal hemoglobin. These people often are very unhealthy and suffer recurrent attacks of sickling. They deal with much pain and often require pain meds and they are often admitted to the hospital for various treatments to try to reverse the sickling that is occurring. The other form of this disease is called sickle cell trait. These individuals have only one gene for the disease. They are much less likely to have the sickling occur and often do not even know they have the disease. Though sickle cell crises can occur in sickle cell trait they are usually less severe and can be reversed more easily. Well, our suspect in this case had sickle cell trait, not the more severe form. However, the postmortem exam did show that he was in a sickle cell crisis. So something that happened with the events of his attempted robbery, whether it was the chase by the cops, the stress of being caught, the pulling of his arms back when he was cuffed -- I don't know what, but something made him have a full blown and severe sickle cell crisis. Though people certainly can die from sickle cell crises, most do not. They receive intravenous fluids, oxygen, and whatever other medical support they need, and the crises abates. They are often in the hospital for days or a week or more with all of these supportive measures before the effects of sickling completely go away. But it is highly unusual for someone to die from a sickle cell crisis within 10 minutes, especially when he does not have the full disease but instead the lesser form, sickle cell trait. So what happened here? Was he already starting a crisis when he was in jail, or earlier in the day released, or when he was on the streets and making the decision to rob someone. Did the running from the cops, and the stress of being caught and handcuffed etc aggravate the process? I don't know and I am still having difficulty explaining the horrendous result of his disease.

     But then, what about the cops? Should they be charged with negligence or with a worse charge in the death of this suspect? Seeing the video it is difficult to believe that they could not see his medical distress. Yet he had run from them, he was probably the fellow that had tried to rob an older couple, and they were probably somewhat disgusted with him. He seems to have resisted the police, and so they concluded that in the back seat of the squad car he was just continuing his resistance. I can see both angles in this case. The police did do the correct thing once they realized he had lost consciousness. But it was too late. It has been stated that even if he had been taken to the hospital at the beginning of the period in the back seat of the squad car, it is likely that he would not have survived if he could not breath at that point. The inability of his body to circulate oxygen to his brain such that he lost consciousness means that even resuscitative measures in the emergency room would not have been quick enough to reverse the affects of those obstructive sickled red cells. In extreme cases, where the victim of the disease is critical, exchange transfusions are done to try to replace the sickled cells with normal red blood cells. It takes at least a couple hours to set such treatment up. So even if he had been taken to the hospital early on, it is unlikely that such lifesaving efforts could have been completed in time. This doesn't excuse the officers oversight but it does affect the legal conclusions.

     Well, after all of these ramblings and feeling one way and the other, I still can see both sides of the picture and I don't know what will be the conclusion of the case. Right now, the district attorney has to decide whether to subject the police officers to a hearing and then if found guilty of "likely cause" would have to stand trial. Time will tell. This event just emphasizes that you don't want to do anything that might get you into the hands of the police. And if that is likely, you must cooperate, not resist, be pleasant and respectful, because you now have no control of the situation.

     P.S.  The case has finally concluded and it was determined that the police did nothing wrong and would not be charged or even disciplined. Of course, the family still is fighting this. There will likely be an appeal. Also the family is considering bringing civil suit now. This could still drag on for even years. Such is our legal system.