Author: Haunted Coconut

The Handmaid’s Tale: What is the Deal With the Colonies?

Season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale is a remarkable study of the human spirit that embodies exquisite acting, titillating visual imagery, and more tension than my poor smothered teddy bear can handle. But there is an arc to this season that is more than troubling–a xenolith of torture porn that exhibits no forward movement or even the promise of it: Emily and the colonies.

It isn’t just an interesting band name. “Emily and the colonies” is the bone spur of this season. There is no virtue or entertainment in watching women pull out their teeth and fingernails, and dig at the steaming earth over and over. There is no purpose to witnessing their decaying bondage, other than to string out June/Offred’s tale. The arc is so far gone in degrees of hope, and even reality, that it is a face-punching anchor on the entire season.

You may disagree with me entirely. But, even if you find a smidge of virtue in watching rotted bodies digging in the earth and washing their skin away at the sinks, you have to admit, there are some major problems with this storyline. So many questions. So much that makes no sense.

What are the colonies?

The answer is that we do not exactly know. Margaret Atwood–the source-material author–never explicitly states what or where they are, only that they are toxic and horrible. It is pretty easily inferred, however, that they are massive areas that were hit by nuclear bombs (or other weaponry). This explains the radioactivity, and (sort of), why they are digging at the soil. Presumably, the idea is that my scraping away the top foot or so of earth, the land may be livable again some day. Many, many, many years from now.

Why aren’t they using bulldozers?

So there are the unwomen, and the aunts, and the guardians, all slowly (verrrry slowly) digging and picking at the earth and shoving it all into bags (bags!). But why the hell don’t they have big machines to make the job go monumentally faster? The technology exists, the fuel exists.

We know that Atwood remarks the unwomen cannot have protective gear because Gilead won’t bear the expense, but surely, sending a fleet of bulldozers to cut the job time 1,000-fold, is more cost effective than the labor of the aunts and the guardians, the food provisions for everyone, the cost of all those damn bags, and the utility costs of maintaining these camps for years upon years.

Damn it, Gilead! Dig down a long way into the earth, pour a concrete shell with a nice lead lining for good measure, and then bulldoze a whole lot of toxic earth into the subterranean concrete vault, seal the thing up, and move on to the next site.

What in the name of Janine are they planning to do with those bags, anyway?

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What Happened to the 1890 Census?

Genealogy nerds like me frequently weep and fan themselves to exhaustion over a gaping hole in America’s historical record:

The 1890 U.S. Census is gone.

The original was destroyed. No copies exist.

It has been erased from history, erased from existence.

That, my friends, is no small deal. Every ten years since 1790, we have records of who lived where, with what family members, how old they were…and assorted other nuggets of personal history. Try to research your family history, and you will quickly understand what a treasure chest each census is–“oh look, my great-great grandfather was a ‘gentleman’ by profession in 1910, while in 1900, he was a fruit peddler.” I can tell you when my great grandparents took in my young, distant cousins (after their mother’s dress caught on fire from the stove, and her instincts to run across a field to a neighboring home while aflame were fatal). I can point to the empty, weed-filled lot in Detroit and say with confidence, “Yep, that was my family’s home for over fifty years.”

I know all of this because of census records. But thanks to a deep and bizarre mystery, I cannot track much of my American ancestors’ history and movement from 1881 to 1899, because the 1890 census has been wiped from history.

What happened to it? According to most stories it burned up in 1921. But that isn’t really the truth. Something far stranger happened, and to this day it isn’t clear at all why it happened.

This is the story of the 1890 U.S. Census and how it went from controversial marvel, to disappearing pile of ash. What you are about to read is a tale of greed, incompetence, and mystery.

1890: The Eleventh Census is Taken

It is June, 1890. Across the country, about 86,000 men had recently been hired for temporary work as census enumerators. Now, in the June heat, each man plods door to door within his assigned district to take down a wide range of personal  and confidential family details about births, residences, parents, occupations, race, ethnicity, education, and impairments. For the first time (and what would later turn out to be the only time for many decades to come), there is a separate schedule (sheet of paper) for each family, allowing for unprecedented details to be recorded–and making it a back-breaking job to shuffle all of that paper. (It is said that there is more paper used in this census taking than in all previous ten censuses combined!)

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When a family cannot be questioned personally, it is within the power of each enumerator to obtain the needed information from neighbors as proxies. It is important to be efficient in the collection, as the job must be done and reported back to Washington by the July deadline.

The untrained enumerators have sworn an oath to be courteous, confidential, and thorough–the last part being nearly guaranteed, as the men are paid according to what each records. According to the 1890 “Instructions to Enumerators” guide, they are each to be compensated to the tune of 2 cents per death reported, 5 cents per person with a mental or physical defect, or for each prisoner, pauper or homeless child. Each also receives 5 cents for each veteran or veteran’s widow from the “war of the rebellion”, and 2 cents for every other living person.

The data collection is likely grueling, tedious work without long-term prospects, but it is in service of their country and history–or, in some cases, it is a wonderful gesture of patronage by powerful friends and muggity-wumps who want well-placed (and untested) enumerators to advance their political or business agendas. Many deals across the nation hinge on the outcome of this census and what it reveals about changing populations, movements, and resources. In short, a lot of money may be made or lost over the results.

Once the work is complete, each man wraps up his work by following these guidelines as described in the August 30, 1890 issue of Scientific American:

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This is a deviation from the practice of enumerators in past decades, who had previously filed their completed census schedules with County Clerks offices before they were forwarded to Washington. But this year, there is so much data (*sigh*) that the hand-copying burden is an easy excuse for the census records to bypass local offices and head straight to Washington, and only Washington. All eggs in one flammable basket.

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If You Were Stranded On a Desert Island, and You Could Only Have…

Workplace lunchrooms would be nothing without the ol’ desert island scenario. There you are, you poor bastard. You’re stranded on a very tiny desert island for what you can only assume is an indefinite amount of time. A few concessions are made by the universe toward your predicament: Apparently, you have at least a meager source of fresh water and food–enough to survive, even if you get the “coconut runs” daily. Sadly, though, it is presumed in most scenarios that you have no companionship.

Curiously enough, whatever crisis led to your surprise crash or abandonment on the little island, you are given some options–maybe by the grace of generous pirates? Well-connected mer-people? So, now is the time to choose. Your benevolent porpoise or pirate wench has given you but moments to decide the small comfort you may be afforded for your eternal, sandy sabbatical. I hope you have your answers ready to go. Wish-granting squids are notoriously impatient.

If you were stranded on a desert island, and you could only have…

Two Books

This is the standard smartass conundrum. Are you one of those insufferables who believes you are terribly clever in declaring that you would bring a survivalist’s guide? Or a medical guide? Or a guide to building boats? Or the longest book possible so the pages may act as kindling?

Fuck you, if you are. That isn’t the exercise. The point is to decide what you read for your mind, spirit, and soul. And the merman will tell you so. Offend the merfolk and they’ll swim off and leave you with nothing, you jagoff.

And while major collected works and anthologies aren’t strictly against the rules, the dolphins will make sure the pages are loaded with bed bugs and fleas. And the pirates will vomit old rum and sea water on them. So select those at your own risk.

Trilogies or series are too broad. One could merely select the largest volume of books as a “series”, thus creating a little sandy coconut library. But, remember, the porpoises can only carry two books, and the pirates are far too drunk to retrieve more.

For my part, I’d be tempted to select some Poe short stories, a Stephen King novel, or Catcher in the Rye. But I have to be careful not to pick anything too damn depressing. The whole idea is to promote survival and sanity. I want to be removed to a happy place where I can remember the beauty of humanity and maintain my imagination.

Here are my picks:

  1. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

I will confess that this is partly due to length–scarcity certainly being a consideration, but also for the humor and humanity of the Dickens work that follows young Master Copperfield as he makes his way in the 19th century world. The characters are vivid and inviting. Reading through this novel is like taking a whirlwind tour of different families, circumstances, and ways of life. What better way to have dozens of imaginary companions during your time of isolation?

     2. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

Perhaps you can tell by these selections that I have a fondness for bold, upstart leading characters who face adversity but still see the good in themselves and the world. I think facing down the prospect of rancid water, raw crab meat (okay, yum) and pouring rain storms, I might need a reminder of innocence, optimism, and imagination.

If you were stranded on a desert island, and you could only have…

Two Movies

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From American to Luxembourger: How I Changed My Citizenship

There was another school shooting yesterday. Kids died. And it happened, on a big-picture scale, because America is one giant gun culture. Weapons fetishists. As a nation, we’re obsessed with the notion of masculinity, strength, and superiority. Guns are just one way that the obsession manifests itself.

I’m really starting to hate this country. My country. The great global eighteenth century experiment that went wrong in the end. Our Founding Fathers meant well, but they put too much faith in “the people”, that we could make rational, thoughtful decisions. We can’t. Or we won’t. They also failed to envision innovation of any sort. I suppose they entrusted that future stewards would attend to growth and change, but they didn’t.

They had at least a marginal amount of faith that we could choose leaders that would actually protect the general welfare. Even with an electoral college as a backstop, we still managed to fuck that up, from our President to our Congress to our state Governors. As a nation we’re sick, our children are hungry, our wages are low, and we have fat pigs dining at gilded tables piled with kickbacks and dividends.

Maybe worst of all though, we have turned our back on science and truth. Instead building a golden age of research, art, and general enlightenment, we now have a national credo that “learning isn’t for everyone” and that education is only political indoctrination. Science is a myth, history is subjective, and patriotism is all you need.

Oh yes, patriotism. The bread and butter of the military industrial complex that has ballooned despite Eisenhower’s Kreskin-esque warning. We have a fetish for our military personnel. “Thank you for your service” is nearly a compulsory phrase, like saying “bless you” when someone sneezes, or “U-S-A!” whenever a politician speaks. Call me crazy, but I’d rather just pay more taxes and make sure they are cared for with good pay, health care, and help wherever it is needed.

It’s all fixable of course. But the laundry piled is high, and as Americans, we don’t want to fix it. We like it just how it is. In fact, we want it more, faster, bigger!

That used to terrify me. So I would rant and rail. I wrote letters and made phone calls and voted in every damn election. I contributed to worthy political campaigns and volunteered in my community. That was my twenties. Those optimistic, kickass years where a body thinks that anything can be changed and moved with a little grit, spit, and the right attitude.

And then I had a “eureka” moment some years back. I was spinning my wheels to make change where none was wanted. Why? Women of my generation have preached to their daughters and sisters that you “can’t change a man”. Well, I can’t change a nation that loves its gun culture and its anti-intellectual “every man” attitude, is frightened of every shadow, and has a feverish love of everything red, white, blue, and bible.

I am the outsider who thinks more guns equal more shootings, that it’s okay for us not to be the greatest nation in the world as long as we’re honest about it, and that we really need more space exploration, art, and education. Our churches should be gardens and our schools should be palaces. And our core philosophy as the nation with the biggest megaphone and pile of phonebooks under our feet should be “help each other”.

I am a stranger in a strange land.

When you accept that premise, your whole world becomes a little darker and pretty damn sad. There is no true utopia on earth. I get that. There is no place to hide where everyone holds hands and skips, and passes out lollipops and gumdrops. There is no chocolate waterfall or talking woodland animal to be my sidekick.

But there has to be better. Or at least less damn scary and backward. My bar isn’t that high. I swear.

Poutine Versus Trains and Cheese

There is a very poetically sad element to my thinking and wishing for better for myself, for my husband, for our daughter, and for all of the generations after her. This plucky despondency combined with grandiose hope cannot be far from how my ancestors felt when they packed up and moved to the United States–many of them barely over one hundred years ago. The sacrifices and risks they took to settle in the United States must have been unimaginable. They defied tradition and familiarity, tearing at their own roots just to replant themselves in America.

I hope they had good lives and loved their new country. But a few generations later, I wish they had stayed where they were. I want to travel back to 1917 and grab on to my great grandfather’s overcoat and dig my heels into the earth to stop him from crossing the border from Ontario to Michigan. Or at least tear the pen from his hands while he was filling out his “Permit to Leave Canada”. No! It may be cold and strange up there, but they have healthcare and gun laws. And a competent (and adorable) Prime Minister. I could eat poutine the rest of my life (until my arteries clogged solidly), and salute the maple leaf every Canada Day.

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But my grandfather was born in America. And that puts Canadian citizenship out of my reach.

That’s okay, Canada. I appreciate that Americans are a little scary, and you don’t want a mass invasion. And no offense, but your winters are just as awful as Michigan’s, and I just can’t spend  40% of the rest of my life in cold, snowy darkness. So dark. So bleak.

So where is a stranger to go? For a long time, the real prize, the dream escape, has been somewhere in western Europe. The culture, the pace, the food, the politics, the mass transit. It all suits me so well. It’s no utopia, but it feels like home calling to me, especially while I sit on my couch staring out at the gray sky sprinkling snow on the roadways and treetops. I dream of sipping coffee or wine in cafes, walking a few blocks to get fresh baguettes and vegetables from local stands, and popping into museums on the weekend. Or I could take an easy train ride to a new country I’ve never seen before. I can ride the underground to work or a shopping destination, without fighting traffic, bumping around on massive potholes, and going to a warehouse grocery store to get vegetables that have been in transit and storage for at least several weeks. No more flat tires, oil changes, ludicrously high insurance, or even the monthly lease payments. It’s all train tracks, a good book, and my glowing phone. And castles, cheese, and museums. And fresh flowers, warmth, and bicycling. It’s such a pretty picture in my head. So pretty, that early on, I became determined to make that the retirement plan. Sell off everything I own–which isn’t a fortune–and rent a flat in Paris.

But I’m still in my thirties, and that means I have a lot of slushy winters to survive before then. A lot of school shooting coverage to watch. A lot of misspelled “God Bles Trump” and “Vetrans For Trump” road signs to drive past, while I bump over potholes and squirt my windshield free of road salt spittle.

So I crafted a new, more aggressive plan: Get a job! Of course. We can make the move right now, if only there is a wage waiting for us. And a work visa. That’s the catch, though. An employer has to want you so badly that they’ll sponsor a very expensive visa in your name. I could keep rolling the dice all day long, every day, and the right job is probably never going to pop up to pluck us all out of Michigan. My husband and I are great at our professional jobs, but so are a lot of other people. And visas are expensive.

The futility of it seemed bleak. Watching-hillbilly-asscracks-at-Wal-Mart kind of bleak.

And then, one Sunday a few years back, chance changed this stranger’s life.

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Oldies Music is Super Creepy, Yo

I grew up listening to 1950s and 1960s “oldies” music on the radio and records and cassette  tapes. It all seemed really normal since it was my mom’s favorite, until I realized that she was born in 1955, which means that she was still worshipping music from her preschool years–and worse yet, subjecting me to it throughout my impressionable youth. Thanks, Mom. It could been the Stones. Or The Doors. Or even ELO. Those were your contemporary groups! Instead, I spent the 80s listening to Buddy Holly and the Crickets tracks over and over on some enormous headphones that would’ve fit in at NASA.

Okay, I kind of like it. There were some beautiful tunes and amazing vocals that still hold up. And if that all fails, there’s always great kitsch (see “Sugar Shack” and “Sunshine, Lollipops”, etc.).

But as an adult , I’ve started to hear some of the oldies lyrics in a much different light. I’m rocking out to some of the classics in my kitchen, washing dishes and cooking dinner, and suddenly I catch what I’m singing in front of my daughter and I’m halted upright and make that lemon-sucking face.

What did I just sing out loud? Oh my god, did I just sing about sexually attacking a teenager?!

And I want to hit the “next track” symbol or start nervously laughing at Alexa as if it was her fault the song came on. “Oh, Alexa! What kind of crazy music do you think I like? Ha. Ha. Yeah. Next track! Next track!”. But the truth is, some of the creepiest songs are also the catchiest, so my finger hovers over the iPhone and then I just keep grooving, while making coughing noises and mumbling over the choicest lyrical bits.

Damnit, Baby Boomers, you guys are messed up. Your generation sang about some pretty sick relationships, and you weren’t trying to be shocking or emo. You were happy and bopping about it! Dudes. Messed up. Messed up like the featured image above, which seems to represent how fondly the 1950s and 60s thought of women.

Can’t recall what I’m talking about? I present as evidence, the top five worst offenders:

5. “Surf City” – Jan & Dean (or The Beach Boys) (1963)

I don’t buy for a moment that this tune isn’t all about a few twenty-something dudes getting some teenage fish tacos down at the beach. A lot of them, apparently.

“Two girls for every boy.” That is the main thrust (ziiiiing!) of the entire song.

Apparently that is what awaits them and their “woodie” which isn’t “very cherry, it’s an oldie but a goodie”. “Surf City here we come.” Now, by “Surf City”, they mean vaginas.

“You know we’re goin’ to Surf City, gonna have some fun, You know we’re goin’ to Surf City, ’cause it’s two to one.”

“Yeah, and there’s two swinging’ honeys for every guy, and all you gotta do is just wink your eye”

If you think that’s the worst of it, it gets really crude near the end of the song. Are you ready for this?

“And if my woody breaks down on me somewhere on the surf route, I’ll strap my board to my back and hitch a ride in my wetsuit. And when I get to Surf City I’ll be shootin’ the curl.”

I understand that these are all legitimate surfing terms, but puh-lease. That last stanza could be a euphemism for several nasty things, including the guy losing his boner and giving her oral instead, or him getting rejected so he rubs one out behind his surfboard. Either way, yikes, Jan & Dean.

4. “Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen” – Neil Sedaka (1961)

This is the song that everybody wants to be able to play for their daughters, sisters, or friends on the day they turn 16. Until they listen to the lyrics. Sedaka, did you have to make it weird?

“Tonight’s the night I’ve waited for, because you’re not a baby anymore”

What the hell’s happening tonight, Sedaka? She’s still a minor, by the way. Keep those pants zipped, buddy.

“When you were only six I was your big brother…but since you’ve grown up, your future is sewn up. From now on you’re gonna be mine.”

So, how old are you?? Here’s a hint: Sedaka was singing this tune to girls in the audience starting when he was 22 (although, he does look about 40 in the video below, doesn’t he?). So a 22 year-old is planning to bag a girl who, just yesterday, was only 15. And she has no choice about it.

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Who is the TD Ameritrade Beard Guy?

Some months ago I started spasming over what was a series of condescending and creepy ads put out by TD Ameritrade and their “green room”, which, in many ads, appears to be little more than a “beaver trap” for Mr. Beardy and the two cockroaches presumably living in his face rug. So I created a Mr. Beardy dartboard to relieve some of my tension and save the life of my wibbly-wobbly television set. Who knew this off-the-cuff rant and mental slip would turn into–by far–the most popular post I have ever written?

It turns out, people are really fascinated by Mr. Beardy. Some of the very colorful comments received on the aforementioned post have ranged from blinding rage to romantic enchantment (I presume, mostly, because of the proposed hypnotic qualities of the beard). Oh, and the occasional hostility toward people who are hostile to Mr. Beardy. Eh.

So who is he? Allow me to introduce the man who has people and cockroaches alike so worked up: The actor portraying the TD Ameritrade financial therapizer is Jim Conroy. He is mostly known for his animated voiceover work, but has also been spotted in a few other TV ads.

Screen Shot 2018-01-12 at 12.19.27 PMJim Conroy appears as “Frank” in an AT&T spot

Screen Shot 2018-01-12 at 12.46.42 PM.pngJim Conroy sniffs Tide detergent in an ad

The page of Jim’s career that has blown my mind the most, though, is his role as…..Ruff Ruffman!

RUFF RUFFMAN!!

Parents with kids age 8-13 probably know who I’m talking about. From 2006 to 2010, there was a charming animated PBS show called FETCH! With Ruff Ruffman. Watch a bit here for the craziness of recognizing our TD Ameritrade guy’s voice!

Crazy. I unknowingly have listened to our cockroach-bearded guy for hours upon hours. Who knew? 

This is an important lesson, though for the TD Ameritrade commercial viewers out there: Jim Conroy is an actor. He is not a financial advisor. His “trustworthiness” is not a reflection on the merits of TD Ameritrade (only their advertising department). And it turns out, I have a fair amount of respect for Jim Conroy and his previous work, as Ruff Ruffman was a pretty great character who brought my daughter a lot of happiness.

However, we all still have full permission to hate the TD Ameritrade financial therapizer character. Or find him sexy. Whatever your bag. I stand by my observations that the “green room” Mr. Beardy lures people to is nothing more than a serial killer’s den, and that the women are probably stuffed in a cellar that can be accessed by a trapdoor under the pool table. Probably with the help of “Bryan”, who is willing to do anything Mr. Beardy says, as long as he gets to stroke the beard and is never called “Brian” with an “I”.

More to the point, though, it still remains true, TD Ameritrade writers/dickfaces, that ladies don’t need your validation of how busy we are, or to have lazy analogies about golf swings dumped in front of us (although, I think our Mr. Beardy character may have gone a little rogue on that one just to get Golf Lady naked and tied up). The point is, these ads are still condescending and creepy. But the actor Jim Conroy might just be alright. Or not. Only his cockroaches truly know.


EDIT:

Since posting this, Jim Conroy has been kind enough to comment on this post. As you can read below, he is very gracious and has a much-appreciated sense of humor. I thought it was worth reiterating: I like the actor, Jim Conroy, and actually really, really admire some of his work. Ruff Ruffman, man. Ruff Ruffman. It’s only the character of the financial therapizer and sportsman (and suspected serial killer) who is awful. And this country’s weird pro-beard fetish we have going on. What’s up with that? Anyway, I’ve even found that the TD Ameritrade ads are getting more reasonable and tolerable. Maybe they hired some women?

Eh, or maybe I’m just losing my cranky edge and my heart is softening like gooey cream cheese. I actually waved hello at a neighbor today. Something’s off here. Maybe I need more vitamins. Or wine. Or vitamin-fortified wine and a fake beard to learn what it’s like.

In any event, Jim Conroy has my sincere thanks for being such a good sport and for being such a class act. Unlike myself. Until I get that fake beard and vita-wine going, I mean. Then I’ll be almost as classy as he is. But not quite.

Get to Know Andrew Jackson

“His wife died. They destroyed his wife and she died. He was a swashbuckler, but when his wife died you know he visited her grave everyday? I visited her grave actually because I was in Tennessee…And it was amazing. The people of Tennessee are amazing people. They love Andrew Jackson. They love Andrew Jackson in Tennessee…I mean had Andrew Jackson been a little later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said ‘There’s no reason for this.'”

Donald Trump really idolizes Andrew Jackson. His portrait hangs in the Oval Office, and the POTUS has verbal diarrhea, apparently, just at the mention of our seventh president. So maybe we should get to know him and understand what Donald Trump really sees in the “people’s president”.

Solider Boy

Jackson grew up dirt-poor and poorly educated in the Carolinas, and was a tween during the American Revolution. Inspired by his older brother’s grizzly death, his mother made him join the local militia at the age of 13. He was almost immediately captured, and was held as a prisoner of war. Though his military incarceration was quite brief, he nearly died of small pox. Shortly afterward, he lost his remaining brother and mother to disease, for which he always blamed the British. This Anglo grudge led him to a life of military service and a deep, festering sense of vengeance.

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Donald Trump Comparison!:
A young, wealthy, athletic Trump graduated college and avoided compulsory military service in the Vietnam War because of a dubious diagnosis of having “bone spurs”. Consequently, he has never served in the military. And he once had this to say: “I like people who weren’t captured.”

Lawyer, Slave Owner, Cotton Mogul, and Stain on the Soul of Humanity

As an orphan, Jackson was still really poorly educated until he fled his hometown to study law informally in modern-day Tennessee. And it turns out Tennessee, as-was, had a boatload of hookers and gambling opportunities. So that was great for him.

He passed the bar and had friends pull a few strings to get him a gig as a government prosecutor. At age 21 he bought his first slave, which was probably his way of feeling really awesome about himself. By age 39 he was even wealthy enough to buy his own cotton plantation, the Hermitage, with nine slaves working the fields. Of course, this number went up quite a bit under Jackson’s management. Eventually, hundreds of slaves would be incarcerated at the Hermitage. Some historians think he was a relatively “kind” slave owner because he “let” the slaves bear babies and only whipped them when they really deserved it. But hell naw, the man ran a cotton plantation his entire life.

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