Historical Figures With Humorous Names

Posted on February 7, 2012


Features | Erin Agnew

When the weather is truly frosty, and a snowstorm looms on the horizon, nothing warms one’s heart more than refreshing look at America’s humorous past.  No, we do not open the storybook of American history to poke fun at General McDowell’s wardrobe confusion, when he allowed Confederate troops gleefully behind Union lines to steal cannons.  No, we do not look back and laugh at Peggy Shippen, who pretended to be undressing  just long enough to stall the father of our country, so her husband could smuggle military documents to the enemy.  We don’t even crack a smile at John Rolfe for bringing his lovely wife to a country which automatically infected her with diseases to which she had no natural immunity.
These people, entertaining, ironic, and charming as their antics were, had very run of the mill names.  Marys, Peggys, Johns, and Abrahams are often the most admirable figures in history, but wouldn’t it be easier to remember the answer to number 46 on your history exam if  the parents of our founding fathers were just a little bit more imaginative?  Some of them were. We only need to peek into the not so distant  past to see where dear old historical Mom and Dad really had a party.
Wilma Pearl Mankiller passed away just two years ago.  She was a dazzling humanitarian, respected leader, and beloved public figure.  She also had a name worthy of superhero status.  Born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in a home with no indoor plumbing or electricity, Mankiller was the sixth of 11 children.  While raising her two daughters, she took night courses at Skyline College and San Francisco State University.  Outside of her education, the defining experience in her life was the 19 month occupation of Alcatraz Island by Native American students.  She participated in sit-in protests, raised money to support the group, and gained enough experience and public standing to found the community development department of the Cherokee Nation. In 1983, she was elected as the deputy chief of the Cherokee Nation. She was the first woman to hold the position.  Two years later, she was elected as Principal Chief, with 83 percent of the vote.  She held the office until 1995.  The name Mankiller is actually part of her family’s history as tribal warriors. But she was a warrior of another sort – Her cape billowing in the wind and her bedazzled mask concealing her true identity, Wilma Mankiller swooped in to save the day, as well as the Cherokee Nation’s access health care and public education systems.
Alger Hiss next takes center stage as we work backwards in years.  Hiss was involved in the creation of the United Nations and served as the Secretary General of San Francisco. In 1946, Hiss left a deceivingly short, but illustrious career in government, to serve as the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. One would think that all of these world peace touting activities precluded him from the accusations of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.  But in 1948, he was accused of (surprise, surprise): being a communist, joining a list inclusive of Arthur Miller and Lucille Ball. But we must digress.  During his trial for perjury, the court was presented with perhaps the strangest evidence ever seen. Two hollowed out pumpkins filled with 35mm film, four letters in Hiss’ handwriting, and 65 typewritten pages of State Department secrets were presented before the court.  He swore he had never seen them before, and Whittaker Chambers’ farm was suddenly growing the most interesting produce in the country. The pumpkins were literally smashed open in a Washington D.C. courtroom. Mr. Chambers, it turns out, had been hiding the papers for years.  He had moved them from a dumbwaiter to the pumpkin, but the figurative clock struck midnight when Hiss sued him for slander. Friendship, over.  Hiss wound up serving 44 months in prison, swearing his innocence all the while. But that’s not really what’s important here. The really important question Americans must ask ourselves is this: How cool would it be to have a band named Alger Hiss and the Pumpkin Papers?
Travel 18 years back from Alger Hiss’ arrest and you’ll find yourself right at the passage of the Hawley-Smoot Tariff.  Yes, tariffs aren’t people.  This fact is duly noted, but take a moment to say this word aloud three times fast. Hawley-Smoot Tariff, Hawley-Smoot Tariff. Hawley-Smoot Tariff! It’s gratifying, no?  The aforementioned tariff raised American importation taxes to abominably high levels in the name of protecting American farmers. If we the people can’t afford to buy foreign goods, then we will surely improve internal commerce. Right?  Oh, well. World trade declined by 66 percent between 1929 and 1934; but we tried.  The fun fact which compounds our delight in this comic tariff is that it replaced the Fordney-McCumber Act.  What do you know, legislation that you can follow as federal law and wear to impress your prom date!
If you enjoy the finer things in life, chances are you wish you were Ima Hogg. No, really, Ima Hogg.  Contrary to popular belief, Ima Hogg is not a poorly spelled sentence. Quite contrarily, Ima Hogg was a philanthropist and devoted patroness of the arts.  Effectively, she had a lovely furniture collection and a lot of money.  But as the saying goes “it’s not what you have that matters, it’s where you leave it in your will!”  She was the Daughter of Texas Governor James Stephen Hogg (1851 – 1906), who obviously wished his wife had given birth to a punch line instead of a healthy baby girl.  She began collecting American folk art and furniture in 1920, and was soon donating pieces to The Texas Museum of Fine Arts in Houston while filling her mansion, Bayou Bend.  Besides her own, the name of her estate is evocative of a mid-seventies Disney movie, and that Disney movie manor opened as a public museum in 1966.  Her legacy also extends to the establishment of the Child Guidance Center of Houston, the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health and Hygiene (which is also an ironic gem of a name), and the restoration of several historic homes.  If it was her amusing name which helped her do so much good, the world could use more people to stand up and act like Hoggs!

Posted in: Features