What is the Most Valuable Piece of Currency?

I’m willing to bet that many of you have held a $50 bill in your hands. Maybe even a $100 bill. But have you ever held a $500 bill? Or something even larger? What is the most valuable legal tender bill in existence today? And what about the fabled 100,000 dollar bill? Does it exist?

The Most Valuable Piece of Legal Tender = 10,000 Dollar Bill

According to Life’s Little Mysteries, the most valuable piece of legal tender in existence is the $10,000 bill. It was printed from 1928 to 1946 and featured Salmon Chase. Chase was chosen for creating the modern system of banknotes by introducing the greenback, which was the first U.S. federal currency. Interestingly enough, he later expressed regret for this after becoming Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

After World War II, the Treasury stopped printing any bill with a denomination over $100. Thus, the $500, $1,000, $5,000, and $10,000 bills were consigned to the dustbin of history. The Federal Reserve made the discontinuation official on July 14, 1969. While the Fed destroys these bills when they see them, “they remain legal tender while in circulation.”

Thus, you could technically waltz into your favorite store, fill up your cart, and whip out a $10,000 bill to pay for everything. But you’d be foolish to do so (and it’s doubtful that the store would take you seriously anyways). According to the most recent figures I could find, there were just 336 $10,000 bills known to exist as of May 30, 2009. There are 342 $5,000 bills, 165,372 $1,000 bills, and an unknown number of $500 bills. Due to their scarcity, these denominations command large prices among collectors. I found one site that’s asking $98,500 for a fine example of a $10,000 bill.

The Fabled 100,000 Dollar Bill?

However, there’s one bill that boasts a larger denomination than the Chase bill. That is the fabled 100,000 dollar bill (actually a gold certificate) featuring President Woodrow Wilson. For those of you who know about the Federal Reserve and Wilson’s role in creating that institution, this should come as no surprise.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

The Treasury printed 42,000 of these 100,000 dollar bills between December 18, 1934 and January 9, 1935. They were never released into general circulation and instead, were used by Federal Reserve Banks to facilitate transactions with each other. This form of business changed during the 1960s and most of the 100,000 dollar bills were destroyed. There are a few surviving copies, one of which currently resides at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

The Switch in Time that Saved Nine?

In 1937, President Roosevelt proposed his notorious “court-packing plan.” It altered the ideological composition of the Supreme Court and singlehandedly changed the course of a nation. What was “the switch in time that saved nine?”

The Four Horsemen vs. The Three Musketeers?

During the 1930s, the Supreme Court contained two voting blocs. The “Four Horsemen,” which consisted of Justices Pierce Butler, James McReynolds, George Sutherland, and Willis Van Devanter, believed in upholding the Constitution and personal freedom. They generally opposed Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. The Three Musketeers, Louis Brandeis, Benjamin Cardozo, and Harlan Stone, supported the New Deal. Chief Justice Charles Hughes and Justice Owen Roberts acted as swing votes with Hughes often siding with the Musketeers and Roberts usually finding equal ground with the Four Horsemen.

From 1935-1937, the Four Horsemen and Justice Roberts struck down several parts of the highly unconstitutional New Deal. Roosevelt and his supporters despised the Horsemen. However, unless one of them retired, there was nothing he could do to stop them. That is, until he and his attorney general came up with the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937.

President Roosevelt’s Court Packing Plan?

This was the infamous “court packing plan.” President Roosevelt proposed that he be given the power to appoint a new justice for every sitting justice that continued to serve six months past his or her 70th birthday. The bill would’ve allowed him to add 44 federal judges as well as 6 Supreme Court justices. It encountered tremendous opposition even from Roosevelt’s supporters. The public lost faith in him and a previously supportive Congress began to question if the President was trying to create a dictatorship.

The Switch in Time that Saved Nine?

Less than two months after the Bill was announced, Justice Roberts joined the Three Musketeers and Chief Justice Hughes in West Coast Hotel v. Parrish, which upheld minimum wage legislation. It was a strange vote considering the fact that Roberts had previously been on the other end of several decisions regarding the minimum wage. Since then, it has become known as “the switch in time that saved nine,” alluding to the theory that he switched sides in order to stop Roosevelt from usurping the Supreme Court’s independence.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Was the Switch in Time that Saved Nine deliberate? Did Justice Roberts abandon his ideology for political purposes? These questions remain a source of vigorous debate to this day. According to research conducted by Professor G. Edward White, the votes were cast a few days before the court-packing plan was announced. Others point out that Roberts wasn’t a consistent supporter of the Four Horsemen and suggest that his ideology, if indeed he had one to begin with, was actually closer to the Three Musketeers.

On the other hand, there’s some interesting circumstantial evidence to suggest that Chief Justice Hughes engineered the Switch in Time that Saved Nine. Knowing that Roosevelt planned to go after the Supreme Court, Hughes took Roberts under his wing and convinced him to abandon his principles. Also, according to Burt Solomon’s FDR v. The Constitution: The Court-Packing Fight and the Triumph of Democracy, even Roberts’ newly-found allies didn’t understand the Switch in Time that Saved Nine. Harlan Stone, one of the Three Musketeers, wrote a letter to Felix Frankfurter in which he called the Roberts’ vote, “a sad chapter in our judicial history” and referenced “explanations which do not explain.”

The Switch in Time that Saved Nine, as well as the subsequent retirement of Justice Devanter, ultimately led to the defeat of President Roosevelt’s court-packing bill. Still, it could be argued that Roosevelt won in the end as he held the office of President for another eight years, allowing him the opportunity to replace eight Justices and in essence, remake the Supreme Court in his image. But if Roosevelt won, then who lost? Some would say the American people themselves. As Judge Napolitano put it in his book The Constitution in Exile:

“Justice Owen Roberts switched ideological sides and brought a conclusive end to the Constitution as protector of natural rights, the free market, and federalism.” ~ Judge Andrew Napolitano

The Debate that Rocked the World?

It was the most important debate of its time, maybe of all time. It single-handedly changed the world and led to a “war” of monumental importance. So, what was this debate of ideas? The Lincoln-Douglas Debate? The Scopes Monkey Trial? No…it was the Socialist Economic Calculation Debate led by the esteemed Ludwig von Mises.

Ludwig von Mises & Economic Calculation?

By 1920, even ardent admirers of socialism (defined as a society in which the government owns the means of production) knew they had “an incentive problem.” A society where man was supposed to produce “according to his ability” yet only consume “according to his needs,” left that man little reason to work hard or perform unpleasant tasks. Socialists attempted to sidestep that problem by declaring that a socialist society would somehow cause people to become less selfish and more willing to work for the “greater good.”

Then in 1920, Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises published Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth. In the process he dropped a bomb on the heretofore unchallenged socialists and thus, launched the Socialist Economic Calculation Debate. As Murray Rothbard put it in The End of Socialism and the Calculation Debate Revisited:

“Mises in effect said: All right, suppose that the socialists have been able to create a mighty army of citizens all eager to do the bidding of their masters, the socialist planners. What exactly would those planners tell this army to do?” ~ Murray Rothbard

Ludwig von Mises didn’t bother with socialism’s problematic incentive issues. Instead, he argued that “rational economic calculation” couldn’t exist in a socialist economy. Since the government owned all productive resources, there were no market-generated prices. And without prices, it was impossible to know the best use for a piece of land or machinery. That made it impossible for central planners to make rational economic decisions.

The Socialists Strike Back

The socialists knew they had a problem. In fact, the problem was so serious that it vexed them for almost two decades. However, 16 years later, the so-called definitive response was published by the neoclassical economist Oskar Lange. Although he, along with Abba Lerner, acknowledged that prices were essential, Lange argued that they didn’t have to come from free markets. A Central Planning Board could tell “managers” of socialist companies to fix prices. These prices could then be adjusted by the managers via complicated equations and trial and error. Lange’s reply was widely applauded by his fellow Neoclassical economists and considered a damning refutation of Ludwig von Mises.

Around this time, Friedrich Hayek, a pupil of Ludwig von Mises, joined the debate. Hayek essentially conceded that Lange was correct in theory. However, he argued that the scheme was impossibly complicated and based on a “perfect world” that looked nothing like the real one. There was just too much information and too many equations that would need to be solved on a continuous basis. But Hayek’s arguments were largely dismissed by mainstream neoclassical economists as mere practical problems. And with that, the Austrian economists were considered defeated…at least for the moment.

“…there can hardly be any room for debate: of course, socialism can work. On this, Lange certainly is convincing. If this is the sole issue, however, one wonders whether at this stage such an elaborate theoretic demonstration is in order. After all, the Soviet planned economy has been operating for thirty years. Whatever else may be said of it, it has not broken down.” ~ Professor Abram Bergson, Socialist Economics

The Soviet Union Problem?

In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. And afterward, the grim reality of the situation in that country became apparent to the world. The Soviet Union had falsified its GNP and production numbers for decades. Its citizens lived in abject poverty. Black markets and bribery were rampant and indeed, these markets were often the only reason that basic needs were met.

So, who won the debate between the socialists and the Austrians? Well, Hayek’s criticisms of Lange’s theories were valid. But if these problems could be overcome, perhaps through computers, then it stands to reason that “market socialism” could work. However, if that’s the case, then why did the Soviet Union collapse?

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

I would argue that neither Lange nor Hayek really won the debate. Instead, I’d give the honor to the economist who started it…Ludwig von Mises. Lange and his supporters were focused on proving that they could duplicate prices for consumer goods. Hayek agreed this was possible, at least on a theoretical level. But that was never Mises’s key problem with socialism.

The real problem with socialism isn’t finding prices for consumer goods. The real problem is finding prices for land, machinery, and other means of production. In a socialist economy there will be endless transactions of capital goods in which the government is both the buyer and the seller. Without real markets, there’s no way to determine the value of these things. This is, as Murray Rothbard put it, “where calculational chaos…reigns.”

Ironically, the only reason the Soviet Union lasted as long as it did was because of free markets. The Soviet Union wasn’t a pure socialist economy. Instead, it “borrowed” prices for its capital goods from nations with free economies. Without those prices, it would’ve never lasted as long as it did.

In the end, Ludwig von Mises won the debate. In fact, no one ever successfully challenged his original position. Instead, the Socialists seized on Hayek’s contention that market socialism was feasible, focused their attacks on him, and ignored the arguments posed by Ludwig von Mises. Today, the ideological battle between the Austrians and the socialists continues. While neither side has conceded, its difficult to imagine the socialists ever being able to counter the problems posed by the brilliant Ludwig von Mises.

Esperanto: The Language of World Peace?

In 1887, L.L. Zamenhof published Unua Libro in which he detailed a new language of his own creation. His goal was to have this language, since dubbed Esperanto, go global, fostering peace and international understanding in the process. Obviously, he didn’t succeed, at least not yet. But how popular is Esperanto today?

The Invention of Esperanto?

Dr. L.L. Zamenhof’s goal was ambitious – he wanted nothing less than to create a single language which would be used by the entire world. He believed that this would improve communication and break down walls between enemies. Rather than support an existing language, which he considered unfair, he created Esperanto during the late 1870s and early 1880s while living in the Russian Empire.

He published his first book regarding the Esperanto language in 1887. Although based on European root words, it contained its own grammar and vocabulary. It began to grow in popularity and spread across borders. By 1905, there was a World Congress of Esperanto and this event has continued on a nearly annual basis.

Today, there are somewhere between 10,000 and two million speakers of Esperanto, located in 115 countries. While amazingly successful on one level, the movement has fallen far short of Zamenhof’s goals. What went wrong?

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

The biggest obstacle to the growth of Esperanto, as I see it, was already stated by Will Rogers.

“They ain’t gonna do it.” ~ Will Rogers

In other words, the difficulties in learning a new language constituted a barrier that few people were willing to cross. Those who choose to learn a new language often do so for very practical, often economic reasons. That may explain why the English language has “usurped the role of global lingua franca coveted by Esperanto.”

Will Esperanto ever become humanity’s sole language? It seems unlikely. Still, its advocates should be proud. Esperanto is the most popular “constructed language” in history, far outdistancing its many competitors. In addition, it has led to the creation of a unique culture, with publications, music, and even shared traditions. And from where I stand, that makes Esperanto a gigantic success.

Deep Blue vs. Garry Kasparov

In 1997, Garry Kasparov, perhaps the greatest chess player of all time, squared off against the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue. This epic rematch has since been called “the most spectacular chess event in history.” Who won this “Man vs. Machine” battle?

Deep Blue versus Garry Kasparov: Round 1?

With two six-month exceptions, Garry Kasparov was ranked “chess world number one” by the Fédération Internationale des Échecs (FIDE) from January 1984 to January 2006. Although there is room for debate, he is widely considered the greatest chess player of all time.

In 1996, he played an IBM supercomputer named Deep Blue in a 6-match series. Grandmaster Joel Benjamin lent his expertise to the computer by helping to develop its “opening book.” On February 10 of that year, Deep Blue won its first match against Kasparov, making it the first form of artificial intelligence to defeat a reigning world champion. However, Kasparov won three and drew two out of the next five games, giving him a 4-2 victory.

Deep Blue versus Garry Kasparov: Round 2?

Although Deep Blue was beaten, it wasn’t finished. Programmers upgraded the computer and set up a six-game rematch with Kasparov in May 1997. Kasparov was ready but so was the machine. It could evaluate 200 million positions per second and was capable of searching anywhere from 6 to more than 20 moves ahead.

Predictably, this match was closer than the previous one. After five games, each player had one victory and there were three draws. With the score knotted at 2.5 apiece, man and machine settled in for the final bout.

The final game lasted less than an hour. And when the dust had cleared, Deep Blue had won handily. At last, machine had defeated man…or had it?

Did Garry Kasparov lose Confidence? Or did Deep Blue Cheat?

Kasparov’s loss was hard to explain. He opened in somewhat questionable fashion. Worse, he switched up his his moves and fell into “a well known book trap.” Chess historians speculate that Kasparov was tired and had lost confidence. He was also unhappy with the fact that he was denied access to Deep Blue’s recent games while the team that operated Deep Blue could study hundreds of his own. Finally, over the course of the series, he’d chosen to play numerous openings and defenses designed to catch Deep Blue off-guard. While these moves worked to some degree, they also forced him to play in ways that were unfamiliar to him.

However, Kasparov also had a darker theory. He claimed to have seen evidence of human creativity in the second game, which would’ve been against the rules. IBM denied the allegation but strangely, initially refused to show him Deep Blue’s logbooks. Eventually, Kasparov went onto Larry King Live and challenged Deep Blue to a third match consisting of ten games which would not be sponsored by IBM. If he lost, he promised to recognize Deep Blue as the world champion. IBM, oddly enough, refused and dismantled its chess playing machine.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

In January 2003, Kasparov went to war with Deep Junior, a machine capable of considering three million moves per second. The series began in similar fashion to the 1997 one, with three draws and each side winning a game. In the rubber match, Kasparov played to a draw. He would achieve the same result against a separate computer in November of that year.

A sizable percentage of observers believe that computers can now regularly defeat grandmasters and indeed, high-profile games in 2005 and 2006 offer nothing to contradict that notion. Meanwhile, Kasparov has since moved onto politics, namely in opposition to Vladimir Putin. Will he ever return to defend mankind’s honor against machines? Only time will tell.

The Edgar Allan Poe Code?

Edgar Allan Poe is one of America’s best known writers. He was well-known for his heart-rending mysteries and is considered the inventor of the detective novel. But Poe is known for something else…two ciphers that eluded all efforts to solve them for over 150 years. What was the Poe Code?

Edgar Allan Poe’s Cryptographic Challenge

During the mid-1800s, the practice of cryptography was held in high esteem and code-breakers were praised for their abilities. In December 1839, Edgar Allan Poe began publishing a “cryptographic challenge” in the Philadelphia-based Alexander’s Weekly Messenger. In a series of articles, he challenged his readers to stump him with their ciphers. And over a six month period, he published solutions to all of the ciphers as well as sharing much of his knowledge on cryptography.

A year or so after his series ended, he went to the pages of Graham’s Magazine to publish one last article on the subject. In A Few Words on Secret Writing, Poe included two cryptographs supposedly sent to him by a “gentleman whose abilities we highly respect” named W.B. Tyler. Poe went on to claim that he didn’t have time to solve these last two ciphers but that his readers should give them a shot. Apparently, they remained unsolved for over a century.

Breaking Edgar Allan Poe’s Code?

In 1985, Professor Louis Renza came across the ciphers and proposed that W.B. Tyler was none other than Poe himself. This theory grew in prominence when Shawn Rosenheim added some circumstantial evidence in The Cryptographic Imagination: Secret Writing from Edgar Poe to the Internet.

In 1992, Professor Terence Whalen solved the first of the mysterious ciphers. After decoding the mono-alphabetic substitution code, he discovered the following message:

“The soul secure in her existence smiles at the drawn dagger and defies its point. The stars shall fade away, the sun himself grow dim with age and nature sink in years, but thou shall flourish in immortal youth, unhurt amid the war of elements, the wreck of matter and the crush of worlds.”

Much to his disappointment, the passage could not be claimed as original to Poe. Instead, it was traced to Joseph Addison’s 1713 play Cato. In order to solve the second cipher, Rosenheim created the “Edgar Allan Poe Cryptographic Challenge” and offered $2,500 to the first person to decode the cipher.

“The contest was an avenue of last resort. Because the second cipher uses six separate alphabets to encode its text, it’s several orders of magnitude harder than the first. I tried to solve it myself and failed. I also sent it to various cryptographers, from the editor of The Cryptogram magazine to professionals at Bell Labs, but no one was able to help me.” ~ Shawn Rosenheim

In July 2000, the contest came to an end when Gil Bronza submitted the correct answer. It turned out that the cipher was a poly-alphabetic substitution cipher and contained “over two dozen mistakes.” And what was the answer to this masterful, albeit flawed puzzle?

“It was early spring, warm and sultry glowed the afternoon. The very breezes seemed to share the delicious langour of universal nature, are laden the various and mingled perfumes of the rose and the –essaerne (?), the woodbine and its wildflower. They slowly wafted their fragrant offering to the open window where sat the lovers. The ardent sun shoot fell upon her blushing face and its gentle beauty was more like the creation of romance or the fair inspiration of a dream than the actual reality on earth. Tenderly her lover gazed upon her as the clusterous ringlets were edged (?) by amorous and sportive zephyrs and when he perceived (?) the rude intrusion of the sunlight he sprang to draw the curtain but softly she stayed him. ‘No, no, dear Charles,’ she softly said, ‘much rather you’ld I have a little sun than no air at all.'”

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Strange…very strange indeed. So, who wrote the cipher? And what does it mean? Rosenheim believes that the cipher was still written by Poe but admits that “the text is clearly not by Poe, but from some unidentified novel or story of the period.”

We may never know for sure whether or not Poe encoded the two ciphers and published them under the name of W.B. Tyler. And at the end of the day, that’s probably the way Poe would’ve preferred it.

“Ye who read are still among the living; but I who write shall have long since gone my way into the region of shadows. For indeed strange things shall happen, and secret things be known, and many centuries shall pass away, ere these memorials be seen of men. And, when seen, there will be some to disbelieve, and some to doubt, and yet a few who will find much to ponder upon in the characters here graven with a stylus of iron.” ~ Edgar Allan Poe, Shadow – A Parable

The Lost Amendment?

On December 6, 1865, America officially abolished slavery with the adoption of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. However, some people, known as Thirteeners, believe that this was actually the 14th Amendment. The real 13th Amendment, they argue, has been erroneously removed from existence. What is the Lost Titles of Nobility Amendment?

The Titles of Nobility Amendment?

In 1983, David Dodge and Tom Dunn were searching through public records in Maine. They came across an 1825 copy of the U.S. Constitution. To their surprise, it contained a strange 13th Amendment, which is now referred to as the Titles of Nobility Amendment. For the next few years, Dodge and Dunn searched archives across the United States. They recovered 18 documents printed between 1822 and 1860 that also included this previously unknown amendment. And slowly, a bizarre story began to unfold.

In the early 1800s, American citizens were extremely concerned about foreign involvement in their newly formed government. For example, the marriage of Jerome Bonaparte (Napoleon’s younger brother) and Betsy Patterson caused some controversy when they gave birth to a baby boy. Although Patterson was an American, she wanted her child to have a title from France. She may have even wanted a title for herself, reflected in the fact that texts at the time referred to her as the “Duchess of Baltimore.”

The idea of its citizens holding allegiance to another country didn’t sit well with the young American government. And the idea of such a person holding a U.S. political office was unthinkable. Thus, the Titles of Nobility Amendment was created in order to modify the following section of the Constitution:

“No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” ~ Article I, Section 9

The amendment, shown below, would’ve extended the law to all citizens. Furthermore, it would’ve increased the law’s domain, making it illegal for a citizen to receive any sort of honor or title from a foreign country without the consent of Congress.

“If any citizen of the United States shall accept, claim, receive or retain, any title of nobility or honour, or shall, without the consent of Congress, accept and retain any present, pension, office or emolument of any kind whatever, from any emperor, king, prince or foreign power, such person shall cease to be a citizen of the United States, and shall be incapable of holding any office of trust or profit under them, or either of them.” ~ Titles of Nobility Amendment

Was the Titles of Nobility Amendment ever Ratified?

In order for a U.S. amendment to become law, it must receive support from two-thirds of the members of each house of Congress or be approved by a convention called by two-thirds of all states. Afterward, it must be ratified by either three-fourths of the states or by three-fourths of the convention. So, how did the Titles of Nobility Amendment do?

Pretty well, it turns out. The amendment passed both houses of Congress by large margins. Then it was presented to the states. At the time, there were 17 states so 13 votes were needed for ratification. But by that time, America was engrossed in the War of 1812 and the amendment was forgotten. When the issue was raised again by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams in 1818, he discovered that twelve separate states had voted for ratification, three had rejected it, and one had taken no action. The sole remaining state, Virginia, apparently never replied. So, how did it end up in all those copies of the Constitution? Is it possible that Virginia did ratify the bill and this oversight was corrected?

Dodge thought so. His research led him to a rather significant discovery. On March 12, 1819, Virginia’s legislature published its own official edition of the Constitution and amendments. That edition contained the mysterious Titles of Nobility Amendment.

“Knowing they were the last state necessary to ratify the Amendment, the Virginians had every right [to] announce their own and the nation’s ratification of the Amendment by publishing it on a special edition of the Constitution, and so they did.” ~ David Dodge

The Lost Titles of Nobility Amendment?

Wow. So, if Dodge is correct, how could the United States, in effect, lose an amendment? According to a 2010 Newsweek article on the subject, it’s not so hard to believe.

“If you find it hard to believe that an amendment to the Constitution could have been in effect for four decades and then mysteriously excised and forgotten, well, the times were different. There was no single reference copy of the Constitution to which scribes with quill pens ceremoniously added amendments as they were ratified.”

Of course, Dodge’s evidence is fairly circumstantial. And Jol A. Silversmith, who has written extensively on the subject, argues that by 1819, 13 votes wouldn’t have been enough since other states had joined the Union. A quick check shows that America had 21 states as of March 12, 1819, which means that 16 votes would’ve been required for ratification.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

David Dodge and other proponents of the Titles of Nobility Amendment believe that a greater conspiracy is at work. They think that the amendment was deliberately excised due to the fact that it would’ve made it illegal for lawyers to hold political office since the British Bar refers to American lawyers as “Esquire.” Silversmith and others consider this crazy due to the fact that Esquire carries no special privileges and is not inheritable, among other things.

Interestingly enough, the Titles of Nobility Amendment is still technically pending since its time for ratification was never limited by the 1810 Congress. In order to pass, it would require another 26 votes although I imagine that state legislatures that had already voted on the amendment would demand a revote. In total, 38 votes would be needed in order for the bill to become law.

You may scoff at the idea of modern society passing a law that’s been in limo for over two hundred years. But there is precedence. After all, how do you think the 27th Amendment was passed?

How Wild was the Wild West?

The “Wild West” is an expression used to refer to life in the western United States during the late 1800s. For decades, films and books have depicted the Wild West as a place of gunfights, outlaws, and mass disorder. But recent scholarship shows otherwise. It turns out that the Wild West may not have been so wild after all.

Was the Wild West a Powder Keg waiting to Explode?

The Wild West has long been a staple of American culture. Immortalized in dime novels and Hollywood movies, it has long been depicted as lawless, violent, and chaotic. And a cursory look at trends taking place in the American west during the 1800s would seem to confirm that image.

The Wild West was populated with strangers from various backgrounds, countries, and nationalities who wanted to get their hands on gold. For the most part, they didn’t intend to stay in the area – they wanted to get rich and get back home. Most individuals carried guns. And to top things off, there wasn’t much in the way of official government to keep the peace. At first glance, the Wild West appears to be a power keg filled with a toxic mixture of greed, racism, and unregulated firearms. To top it off, the area exhibited little in the way of long-term community or government law enforcement.

How Wild was the Wild West?

One might expect such a situation to lead to violence and daily gunfights. But a growing body of research suggests the opposite – that the Wild West may have actually been quite peaceful and prosperous. Let’s take a look at some of the strange truths we now know about the Wild West.

  • Bank robberies were rare: According to historian Larry Schweikart, bank robberies were almost non-existent in the Wild West. From 1859-1900, there were only about a dozen or so robberies. In fact, such crimes only became a problem during the 1920s when automobiles allowed for easy escapes and physical security became less important to a bank’s success due to the Federal Reserve assuming responsibility for the system.
  • Private agencies provided law and order: According to Terry Anderson and P.J. Hill’s book, An American Experiment in Anarcho-Capitalism: The Not So Wild, Wild West, “private agencies provided the necessary basis for an orderly society in which property was protected and conflicts were resolved.” Such agencies included land clubs, cattlemen’s associations, mining camps, and wagon trains.
  • Homicides were also relatively rare: In his book Cattle Towns, Robert Dykstra examined five major cattle towns between 1870 and 1885. He found that only forty-five murders took place over the fifteen years.

All this is not to say that hatred, violence, and murder didn’t exist during the Wild West but merely to say that the amounts of it that occurred were far less than has been portrayed in the popular media.

Why was the Wild West relatively Tame?

This can be partly credited to the establishment of private organizations. According to historian Tom Woods, private land clubs created their own laws to “define and protect property rights in land.” Wagon trains that transported people to the west had their own constitutions and judicial systems. Mining camps formed contracts to restrain their own behavior and developed their own legal systems. Those who didn’t approve were free to leave and mine elsewhere. Cattlemen’s associations also wrote constitutions and “hired private ‘protection agencies’ to deter cattle rustling.”

The result was peace…a peace that only began to deteriorate once formal government was introduced into the region…a peace that astounded observers of the time:

“Appeals were taken from one to the other, papers certified up or down and over, and recognized, criminals delivered and judgments accepted from one court by another, with a happy informality which it is pleasant to read of. And here we are confronted by an awkward fact: there was undoubtedly much less crime in the two years this arrangement lasted than in the two which followed the territorial organization and regular government.” ~ J.H. Beadle, Western Wilds (1860)

What about Violence toward the Plains Indians?

Now of course, this just covers the settlers themselves. Treatment of the Plains Indians was marked with violence right? Well, according to Woods, the first half of the 19th century was notable for relatively peaceful trading between the Indians and the settlers. It wasn’t until the second half of the century that violence became the norm. And much of that violence “sprang from…U.S. government policies” rather than civil society. More specifically, at the end of the Civil War, “white settlers and railroad corporations were able to socialize the costs of stealing Indian lands by using violence supplied by the U.S. Army.” In other words, rather than paying for land, politicians beginning with Abraham Lincoln were determined to seize it on behalf of the Union Pacific Railroad. In the process, they enriched themselves as well as numerous prominent American families.

Unfortunately, that seizure came at a high cost…the vicious and deliberate extermination of the Plains Indians by forces led by former Civil War generals. General William Sherman sometimes referred to the affair as “the final solution of the Indian problem.” As many as 45,000 Indians, including women and children, died between 1862-1890 as a result of this government-initiated campaign.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

So, it would appear that civil society in the Wild West was actually rather tame. The “wild” was supplied by the U.S. government’s so-called Indian Wars, which served to permanently alter the settlers’ once-friendly trading relationships with the Plains Indians.

But why does popular culture continue to portray the typical Wild West city as being full of death and violence? It turns out that the problem begins at the academic level.

“The ‘frontier-was-violent’ authors are not, for the most part, attempting to prove that the frontier was violent. Rather, they assume that it was violent and then proffer explanations for that alleged violence.” ~ Roger McGrath, Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes: Violence on the Frontier

Anarcho-capitalists often use the Wild West as an example of how individuals can foster a peaceful existence in the absence of government. Essentially, settlers created their own institutions in order to deal with the very specific problems they faced. Violence was relatively minimal in civil society. But the arrival of formal government brought with it a culture of violence as well as a wave of violent genocide that haunts us to this day.


Guerrilla Explorer’s Wild West Coverage

The Year without a Summer?

In 1816, average global temperatures fell. A strange fog drifted across the Northern Hemisphere. Sunlight dimmed. Crops died due to unusual amounts of dust. What caused “The Year without a Summer?”

What was the Year without a Summer?

“The Year without a Summer” was indeed a strange year. It was most apparent in the northeastern United States, Atlantic Canada, and western Europe. These regions experienced a heavy summer frost which killed off crops, summer snow, persistent fog which reduced and reddened the sunlight, icy lakes and rivers, and rapid temperature changes. In turn, these factors led to rising food prices, famine, riots, arson, looting, disease, and death.

What caused the Year without a Summer?

The Year without a Summer lasted past 1816, into 1817, and possibly into 1818 as well. What could’ve caused such an extended period of climate change?

Well, most scientists attribute the event to the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia. Incidentally, Mount Tambora was the largest eruption of the last 1,300 years and one of the three largest eruptions of the last 2,000 years. Along with four other significant eruptions between 1812 and 1814, Mount Tambora kicked up huge amounts of volcanic dust into the upper atmosphere, which served to block incoming sunlight. Making matters worse, this occurred during a period of significantly reduced solar activity.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

The Year without a Summer was one of the most horrible ones in recent history. But even in bad times, good things can sometimes arise. The volcanic dust in the upper atmosphere led to a period of incredible sunsets, which were immortalized in J.M.W. Turner’s paintings (including the one at the beginning of this post). The vast crop failures also caused American families to seek out better growing conditions. This led to the settling of western and central New York as well as the Upper Midwest.

Joseph Smith’s family was one of those who left New England. His move to Palmyra, NY was an essential step in his founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (it should be noted that past periods of violent climate change have often resulted in the growth of new religions). Also, large amounts of rain in Switzerland led Mary Shelley and John William Polidori to stay indoors for most of the summer. During that time, Shelley wrote Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus while Polidori wrote The Vampyre.

Still, the event must be remembered for the awe-inspiring destruction it wrought throughout the world. In many ways, it’s reminiscent of the Black Death, which may have been caused by the loading of cometary dust into the upper atmosphere. “The Year without a Summer” serves as a reminder of how much we depend on nature for our survival…and how easily it can be taken away.

Who is the Richest Person of All Time?

On March 10, 2011, Forbes Magazine declared Mexican industrialist Carlos Slim to be the richest person in the world. This marks his second year in a row in that position. But how does his fortune of $74 billion rank against wealthy people from the past?

Who is the Richest Person of All Time?

There are two ways to compare wealth. First, we can consider non-inflated sums. Second, we can attempt the difficult task of accounting for inflation, giving a far more accurate comparison.

In terms of the first method, the richest person of all time is Bill Gates. On April 5, 1999, his fortune was estimated at an astounding $101 billion.

However, non-inflated figures mean little, especially over the course of decades or even centuries. After accounting for inflation, the richest person of all time may have been John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller was the founder, chairman, and major shareholder of Standard Oil. On September 29, 1916, he became the first person to amass a fortune greater than $1 billion, a number which rose to $1.4 billion at the time of his death. Incredibly, his wealth was equal to about 1.53% of the U.S. economy at that time. Overall, historians believe that he amassed a fortune equivalent to $336 to $663 billion in terms of today’s dollars.

But is John D. Rockfeller really the Richest Person of All Time?

Rockefeller’s grip on the title of “The Richest Person of All Time” is controversial. Historical inflation figures are difficult to calculate and records of wealth were not always well-kept or made public. Other contenders for the title include:

  • Marcus Licinus Crassus: Lived from 115 BC to 53 BC. His personal fortune, which has been estimated at 170 million sesterces, was roughly equivalent to the “entire annual income of the Roman treasury.” However, the size of his wealth is debatable and some scholars place it closer to $200 million to $2 billion.
  • Musa I: Became the 10th emperor of the Malian Empire in 1312. Supposedly traveled with a huge caravan that included 60,000 men, 12,000 slaves, and 80 camels that carried between 50-300 pounds of gold dust apiece. Some value the entire caravan in excess of $400 billion in today’s dollars.
  • The Rothschild Family: Some historians place the value of the mid-19th century Rothschild banking and finance dynasty at hundreds of billions or even trillions of dollars. However, this is disputed.
  • Genghis Khan: He was the Khan, or emperor, of one of the largest contiguous empires in history. However, to my knowledge, no estimates for his wealth exist.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

So, there you have it. While somewhat controversial, the best evidence we have today points to John D. Rockefeller as “The Richest Person of All Time.” And with a fortune that was at least five times greater than that of any fortune today, it seems likely that he will hold that title for many more years to come.