Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer

On Friday morning, I noticed that I could have watched the opening ceremony to the Winter Olympics via live streaming if I’d gotten up at 5 a.m. Ha, ha. I was busy about then enjoying a dream about something or other. Then I forgot to watch any of the replay on regular TV, maybe because NBC’s treatment is always tiresome.

Considering that today is Lincoln’s birthday, it’s fitting that I picked up a book about him — partly about him — on Saturday at a resale shop, and started reading it as soon as I got home. But I wasn’t thinking about that coincidence when I bought the book. It didn’t occur to me until this morning.

The book is Manhunt, subtitled “The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer,” by James L. Swanson (2006). I liked it from the beginning, namely “A Note to the Reader,” on page viii.

“This story is true. All the characters are real and were alive during the great manhunt of April 1865. Their words are authentic. Indeed, all text appearing within quotation marks comes from original sources: letters, manuscripts, affidavits, trial transcripts, newspapers, government reports, pamphlets, books, memoirs, and other documents. What happened in Washington, DC, in the spring of 1865, and in the swamps and rivers, and the forests and fields, of Maryland and Virginia during the next twelve days, is far too incredible to have ever been made up.”

In a case like this, I’d guess a surfeit of information and sources would be the writer’s challenge, rather than missing puzzle pieces. Among 19th-century crimes, Lincoln’s murder might well be the best documented.

So far Swanson seems up to the challenge. Even though I know a fair amount of the story, and have read other books about the assassination (e.g., The Day Lincoln Was Shot by James Bishop), Manhunt is a page-turner. I spent a fair amount of Saturday night and Sunday morning turning those pages.

Though the book hews close to the facts, that doesn’t keep Swanson from occasional interesting counterfactual musings. Such as a paragraph about what might have happened had Booth’s shot missed — his derringer had only one shot, after all.

“Had Booth missed, Lincoln could have risen from his chair to confront the assassin. At that moment, the president, cornered, with not only his own life in danger but also Mary’s, would almost certainly have fought back. If he did, Booth would have found himself outmatched, facing not kindly Father Abraham, but the aroused fury of the Mississippi River flatboatman who fought off a gang of murderous river pirates in the dead of night, the champion wrestler who, years before, humbled the Clary’s Grove boys in New Salem in a still legendary match, or even the fifty-six-year-old president who could still pick up a long, splitting-axe by his fingertips, raise it, extend his arm out parallel with the ground, and suspend the axe in midair. Lincoln could have choked the life out of the five-foot-eight-inch, 150-pound thespian, or wrestled him over the side of the box, launching Booth on a crippling dive to the stage almost twelve feet below.”

Also intriguing are the walk-on characters. Walk-on from the point of view of the main story, since no one is a walk-on in his or her own life. Such as “John Peanut,” the man — or teen — who worked as a menial at Ford’s Theatre and who held John Wilkes Booth’s horse in the alley behind the theater while the actor went off to become an assassin. Booth had asked Ford’s Theatre carpenter Ned Spangler to do so, but he fobbed the job off on “John Peanut,” who might have been named John or Joseph Burroughs or Burrows.

A little more information about this person is here, for what it’s worth. A Lincoln assassination buff named Roger Norton says, “I believe the best Lincoln assassination researchers in the world tried to find out what became of him, but nobody could succeed. The trail ends with his appearance at the trial. Mike Kauffman has suggested that his name was actually Borrows (sp?). Nobody knows his exact age in 1865 as far as I know, but ‘teens’ is a logical assumption.”

So there’s plenty in Manhunt to keep me interested. It’s become an express train blowing by the other books I’m reading at the moment: Trotsky: Fate of a Revolutionary, The Crossing (Cormac McCarthy) and a collection of Orwell’s essays, which is a re-read after a few decades.

1 Jiao, 1980

From the NWS at 3 p.m. today, for northeastern Illinois: WINTER STORM WARNING REMAINS IN EFFECT FROM 6 PM THIS EVENING TO 9 PM CST FRIDAY…

“Heavy snow expected. Travel will be very difficult to impossible at times, including during the morning commute on Friday. Total snow accumulations of 8 to 14 inches, with localized higher amounts are expected.”

Well, that ought to be fun. Snow had already started as of 6 p.m. Thursday. Fortunately, all of us can stay home tomorrow.

One more small banknote for now. Small in value, about 1.6 cents, and small physically, 4½ by 2 inches. The 1 jiao of the People’s Republic of China. The PRC. I miss it being called red China, just a little.

1 jiao is 0.1 yuan. So you could say that this is a Chinese dime. The gentlemen depicted on the note are stalwart examples of Gaoshan and Manchu men, presumably looking boldly toward the socialist future. Manchu, I’d heard of. Manchu Dynasty and all that. Gaoshan, on the other hand, I had to look up. Seems that’s a term for Taiwanese aborigines.

Dated 1980, but in fact part of the fourth series of the renminbi (as opposed to FECs), which were issued from 1987 to 1997. So I might have picked this up in China. I know I have a few 1 jiao aluminum coins from our visit. Or the note might have been among the bunch o’ cheapies I got more recently.

25 Centavos, Nicaragua, 1991

This slip of a note, all of 41116 inches by 2116 inches, came with dozens of others that I bought for a few dollars a few years ago. It’s one of a series of small denomination notes issued by Banco Central de Nicaragua in the early 1990s that didn’t have much value for very long.

The country’s base currency is the cordoba, named for the fellow pictured on the note, Francisco Hernández de Córdoba (d. 1526), who is regarded as the founder of Nicaragua, in that he founded Granada and León in that country. He’s not to be confused with another Francisco Hernández de Córdoba (d. 1517), who had the misfortune to lead an expedition in the Yucatan inevitably described as “ill-fated.”

Actually, the Nicaraguan Córdoba had his own ill fate, running afoul of another Spaniard, Pedrarias Davila, founder of Panama City and by most accounts a ruthless bastard even by conquistador standards. Davila had Córdoba put to death by decapitation, just as he did to Balboa (who has a currency named after him, too).

The note was printed by Harrison & Sons Limited, a major British engraver of stamps and banknotes founded in 1750 and lasting until it was bought by competitor De La Rue in 1997. “Harrison & Sons Limited” is visible right there on the bottom of the reverse.

The cap in the triangle, incidentally, is a Liberty Cap, a.k.a. a Phrygian Cap. A symbol of freedom, either a freedman’s or more generally everyone’s. I didn’t know this until I looked it up, but Liberty Caps are commonly used Latin American coats of arms, by Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Cuba, El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Paraguay.

Why have we in the United States forgotten about the Phrygian Cap? Why did the silliest of the Tea Party supporters wear tricornes and not Liberty Caps? Most anyone in the early Republic would have known what it meant. Remarkably, Walking Liberty wore a Phrygian Cap on the U.S. half dollar until 1947, though I suspect by then few noticed.

Back to Francisco Hernández de Córdoba. His skull-less bones were discovered in 2000. The Miami Herald reported that year: “Nearly 500 years after he was decapitated by a ruthless boss, and 400 years since his grave was lost in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption, the remains of Hernandez de Cordoba have been discovered. Nicaraguan archaeologists made the find earlier this month in the dusty ruins of a church here on the banks of Lake Managua, 30 miles northwest of the capital…

“When Davila sensed that his chief lieutenant in Panama, Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, was growing in popularity, he had him decapitated. He did the same with Hernandez de Cordoba in 1526. The head of Nicaragua’s founder was stuck on a pole in the town plaza, a reminder to others of the costs of incurring Davila’s wrath, while his body was buried at the foot of the altar in Leon Viejo’s only church.”

10 Sen Note, 1964

Something I thought about the other day, when looking for more detail about my Indonesian 10 sen note, dated 1964: Why aren’t there prizes in cereal boxes any more?

This article at a site called Extra Crispy offers a plausible answer: kids wouldn’t respond to them any more. Entertainment for children has become more sophisticated, you might say. A more cynical take would be that if it isn’t an electronic three-ring circus, kids will be bored.

I wondered that because I read an entry posted by “Man” at a blog called Coined for Money that discusses the 10 sen note. Man asserts (all sic): “Taking a quick break from U.S. notes to talk about my oldest foreign note. I got this from a Cheerios box back in the 1980s when they had a special in box promotion.Cheerios has been doing this for year in the 1950s they had replica confederate money and the most famous is the Sacagewea coins from the 2000s.”

Interesting. I’ve confirmed that General Mills did give away Confederate money reproductions in Cheerios boxes in 1954 — one of those details that shows that some things do change — and Lincoln cents and a few hundred Sacagaweas in 2000.

But I didn’t acquire my note in the 1980s. I don’t remember when I got it, but it was at least as long ago as 1970. It’s one of the first, maybe the first, of the foreign banknotes in my possession. I found it fascinating as a kid. I still find it interesting: a relic, however minor, of Year of Living Dangerously Indonesia. (Book and movie both recommended.)

Could be that Cheerios boxes offered cheap foreign notes as premiums in the late 1960s. That’s plausible, since even then, 10 sen notes were worthless.

To cite Wiki on the 1960s Indonesian rupiah (which even now is technically divided into 100 sen): “The hyperinflation of the early 1960s resulted in the pronouncement of the ‘new rupiah’ supposedly worth 1,000 of the old rupiah.

“The withdrawal of the old money meant the issue of an entirely new set of banknotes, by Presidential decree of 13 December 1965. The decree authorised Bank Indonesia to issue fractional notes for the first time (although the 1 and 2½ rupiah notes were still issued by the government itself), in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 25, and 50 sen showing ‘Volunteers’, dated 1964.

“Due to the fact that the rupiah was only devalued about 10, rather than 1000 times, they were worthless on issue, and many millions of notes never entered circulation.”

Perhaps someone at General Mills’ ad agency got wind of the fact that countless thousands of 10 sen notes could be had for very little real money, and included them in the promotion. And for all I know, the company had so many that it could do it again in the ’80s.

​2½ Guilder Note, 1949

I haven’t found figures on how many 2½ guilder banknotes dated 1949 that De Nederlandsche Bank produced, but it must have been a lot. I know that because, at least as of Sunday, one was for sale on eBay for $1.30, plus 50 cents shipping. A valuable collector’s item, it’s not. Suits me.

The one for sale looks roughly in the same slightly worn condition as the one I have, which is on permanent loan from my mother. It’s a smallish note, 4½ inches by 2⅜ inches. My parents picked it up during their time in Europe in the mid-1950s.

The one to have, at least according to valuations on eBay, is the 1939 Dutch East Indies 25 guilders with Javanese dancers. Someone wants $400 for one of those.

I like the fact that its denomination is ​2½ guilders, not a quantity you see often, though for a long time the United States issued ​2½ dollar gold coins, the Quarter Eagle. Twee en een halvee gulden is also fun to say, though I probably don’t sound Dutch when I do.

If I’ve done my research correctly, a guilder was worth about a U.S. quarter in the mid-50s, valuing this note at 62 cents or so. Not as trifling a sum then as now  — its purchasing power was probably over $5 in current money — but not that much either.

Also of note on the obverse: Uitgegeven krachtens k.b. van 4 Februari 1943 en van 18 Mei 1945. My stab at a translation: issued by virtue of royal decree, February 4, 1943 and May 18, 1945. The Dutch government was in exile in the UK on that first date, including the famously strong-willed Queen Wilhelmina. I know that, anticipating an Allied victory, new Dutch currency was produced starting in 1943. Made in the United States as it happens, as the designs more than hints at.

The 1949 reserve has a Spirographic sort of design.

Queen Juliana appears on the 1949 note, new to the job since her mother abdicated the year before. Juliana was still on some of the coins in circulation when I visited the Netherlands in 1983, though she had abdicated three years earlier in favor of Beatrix, who stayed on as queen until 2014, past the time when guilders ceased to be money. I wonder if the Dutch miss their guilders.

Bayeux Tapestry Odds

Faux spring no mo’. Woke up this morning to a light coat of snow. Not even enough to warrant shoveling, but snow all the same.

I check the Paddy Power web site now and then, not because I’m interesting in betting, but because its predictive powers seem pretty good. Usually. The Irish bookies got the 2016 election wrong, but they get a pass for that, since everyone else did too.

Last week Amazon winnowed its second headquarters site selection to 20 cities, something I’m following as a professional matter. I was a little surprised to see that the odds favor Boston right now, at 2/1, with Atlanta, Austin and Washington DC next.

All very interesting, but what really caught my attention on the site was, “Bayeux Tapestry Location Display.” What? It’s going to be displayed somewhere outside Bayeux?

Apparently so. At some point in the next few years, at someplace in the UK. Exactly where is the betting matter.

Paddy Power puts the British Museum as the clear favorite, at 1/2, which seems reasonable, but also possible are Canterbury and Westminster Abbey at 5/1. Less serious possibilities are at Paddy Power Tower or “Any Carpet Right store.”

I assume the tower is the company headquarters in Dublin. As for Carpet Right, which is actually styled Carpetright, that’s a carpet retailer with 426 stores in the UK and 138 in the Low Countries and Ireland. Just a spot of fun from the Paddy Power bookies.

The Internet, being what it is, allows me to find out about other things related to the Bayeux Tapestry with ridiculous ease. For example, if I wanted to spend $230, I could have my own Bayeux Tapestry tablecloth, 95 percent cotton and also made in France. Nice, but no thanks.

Stinkin’ Badges

All of us went to a screening of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre on Sunday, one of the old movies that TCM shows in movie theaters periodically, in this case for the 70th anniversary of its release. I can take or leave Ben Mankiewicz doing the introduction, as he might on television, but for someone who hasn’t seen the movie, I guess they’re informative.

No one else in the family had seen it. I had, on tape about 25 years ago. Good to see it again, and on the big screen. Like for Casablanca, the movie didn’t fill the house, but there was enough of an audience for an audible chuckle when the subject of badges came up, as most of us knew it would.

Remarkably, “Stinking Badges” has its own Wikipedia page.

This is the kind of thing I wonder about when I’m watching a movie again: just how far would a peso go at the time when the movie is set (1925, despite the appearance of some later-model cars)? Maybe that came to mind because I was handling pesos recently.

Early in the movie, Fred C. Dobbs (Bogart) panhandles three times from the same well-dressed American in Tampico — played by director John Huston — eventually claiming not to realize it was the same man, who tells him off. The well-dressed American clearly gives Dobbs a Mexican peso of immediate post-Revolution vintage: one of these, I could see.

A very common coin at the time: from 1920 to 1945, about 458.6 million of them were minted. It’s a nice coin, composed of .7199 silver and weighing 16.66 g (12 g silver) though not as weighty as a U.S. Peace dollar of the time, .9000 silver and weighing 26.73 g. So what was Dobbs receiving when he got one?

According to the movie at least, which I realize had no obligation to be accurate, enough to buy a meal or a few drinks or a haircut with change left over. The haircut scene was interesting for another reason: Bogart was bald by this time, but after the pretend haircut and oiling of his hair, he didn’t look like it. Probably the work of hair stylist Betty Delmont, if IMDb is accurate.

Also, McCormick (Barton MacLane) promised Dobbs and Curtin U.S. $8 a day for working on his oil rig. That’s about U.S. $114 in current money, but what did it mean in pesos in 1925, when the cost of living was surely a lot less in Mexico?

Curious about the exchange rate, I did some looking around and found this interesting table posted by the St. Louis Fed: average annual exchange rates to the U.S. dollar in the 1920s. That would be the Coolidge dollar that Cole Porter sang about being the top. To answer the question about pesos, it seems that ca. 1925, the rate was about two pesos to the dollar. So if Bogart could get 16 pesos a day, when he could feed himself for two or three, that’s not bad.

Of course, Dobbs and Curtin didn’t get any of that until they beat it out of McCormick. You’d think that if McCormick had made a habit of swindling oil-rig workers, and still walked around openly in Tampico, he’d at least have carried a pistol.

Another thing I noted while looking at the table. In 1922, a French franc was worth about 8.2 U.S. cents. By 1926, the rate was 3.2 U.S. cents to the franc. No wonder Hemingway could afford to drink himself silly in Paris, and Liebling could afford to eat himself fat. Further examination of the table traces the course of the great inflation not only in Germany, but also in Poland and Hungary.

One more thing: when looking into the value of the 1920s peso, I happened across an interesting essay about the economics of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre by a Wake Forest economist named Robert Whaples.

Toward the end of the essay, Whaples offers this observation: “In these scenes and others, the film examines altruism; bargaining and negotiation; barriers to entry; creation of capital; capital constraints; compensating wage differentials; contract enforcement; corruption; cost-benefit analysis; credence goods; debt payment; deferred compensation; economies of scale; efficiency wages; entrepreneurship; exchange rates; externalities; fairness; the nature and organization of the firm; framing effects; game theory; gift exchange; incentives; formal and informal institutions; investment strategies; job search; the value of knowledge; labor market signaling; selecting the optimal location; marginal benefits and costs; the marginal product of labor; natural resource extraction; opportunity costs; partnerships; price and wage determination; property rights and their enforcement; public goods; reputation; risk; scarcity; secrecy; sunk costs; supply and demand analysis; team work; technology and technological change; the theory of value; trade; trust; unemployment; and the creation and recognition of value and wealth.

Can any other movie offer more?”

Mexico City Sobras

Back to posting on January 16. Would that Dr. King had been born in the summer, but I’ll take holidays when I can.

The last major sight we visited in Mexico City was the vast Palacio Nacional, the National Palace, on Zocalo Square. It was fairly late in the afternoon of December 31, and we’d already walked a fair amount, so we only had energy enough to see a small slice of the complex. Even now the palace includes the offices of the president of Mexico and other governmental functions, but there’s also artwork and museum space and some impressive plazas, both open air and covered.

Diego Rivera’s mural depicting the history of Mexico, “The Epic of the Mexican People,” is impossible to miss. This only part of it. My picture does it no justice. One thing it does include is an epic amount of violence.
The building, which evolved over the centuries on the site of an Aztec palace and then a fortified compound that Cortez built on top of its ruins, included a spot that features a lot of cacti native to Mexico, along with other flora.
This is the most useful postcard I bought in Mexico City, on the second day we were there, a route map of the Sistema de Transporte Colectivo.
The Mexico City Metro, that is. If we didn’t walk someplace, we took the Metro. Note the crumpling of the card. I had it in my back pocket a lot.

Rush hour was as jammed as any other megalopolis’ subway, and occasionally we’d get the hairy eyeball from someone who presumably disapproved of tourists on the subway, but on the whole it was a good way to get around: quick, clean, and best of all, 5 pesos per ride. About 25 cents, that is. I know it’s because of subsidies. If you’re going to have a metro area of more than 20 million, best to have a large network of subsidized transit.

Wayfinding in the transfer stations was sometimes lacking. As were maps on the walls. Some stations had them, along with maps of the neighborhood, while some didn’t — such as the station closest to our hotel, Sevilla. That’s what made the postcard so useful.

Also of note: each station has a symbol. Sevilla’s, for instance, was a schematic of the old Chapultepec Aqueduct that runs nearby (and which we saw on foot). Construction of the Metro started in the 1960s, and the idea was to devise a system everyone could use, including people who couldn’t read, which was a higher proportion of the population in those days.

Who created the symbols? Remarkably, American graphic designer Lance Wyman, who is still active. Here at his web site are the some of the symbols for Line 1, which is colored pink, including the aqueduct. We rode that line most of all, and discovered that even if you can read, the symbols are quite useful for knowing where you are quickly.

Walking presented its own challenges. Namely, holes and other rough patches in the sidewalks. Some of the Mexico City sidewalk damage, I expect, is from routine neglect. In other places, the recent earthquake probably did some damage that hasn’t been repaired yet.

Still, you got used to watching for sidewalk hazards in pretty short order, and even got to know the bad spots on the streets you walked on frequently. The street we used from the hotel to the Roma neighborhood, where we ate some fine meals, was Calle Varsovia, which then changed to Calle Medellin, and it featured an especially dangerous urban crevasse. The spot had once had a set of steel plates, maybe covering a utility trench, but some of the plates were gone, others cracked. Step into that unknowingly and you’d break a leg.

In Chapultepec Park, we saw this kind of acrobatics.

It’s called Danza de los Voladores, Dance of the Flyers. “The ritual consists of dance and the climbing of a 30-meter pole from which four of the five participants then launch themselves tied with ropes to descend to the ground,” says Wiki. “The fifth remains on top of the pole, dancing and playing a flute and drum.”

That’s exactly what we saw, with the four flyers slowly getting lower as they circled the pole. Tom said he’d seen it in other parts of Mexico.

My favorite meal of the trip was at a place called Los Almendros, a handsomely appointed restaurant just north of Chapultepec Park in the well-to-do Polanco neighborhood. Apparently there’s another location in Mexico City and one in Cancun and one in Merida. Fittingly, since it specializes in cuisine of the Yucatan.

We arrived at about 2 pm for lunch, and were a little early. Pretty soon the place filled up. That’s the timing of meals in Mexico: lunch after 2 and dinner after 8. We got into the groove of that without much trouble.

I had the pan de cazón: “a casserole dish in Mexican cuisine that is prepared in the style of lasagna using layered tortillas with shark meat such as dogfish shark, black beans or refried black beans and spiced tomato sauce,” explains Wiki, which are says it’s a specialty of Campeche.

Close enough to the Yucatan, I figure. It was tasty. It also inspired a discussion of the various times we’d eaten shark. For me, that goes back at least to a visit to Long Beach in 1982 when a friend and I acquired shark at a grocery store and cooked it up.

One should try things like Yucatani shark casserole on the road, I think. While in Mexico City, I had an ambition of trying fried grasshoppers, chapulines, and even found a recommended place; but it closed early on New Year’s Eve.

You’d think a place like Los Almendros would be expensive, and I suppose it is, locally, but a strong dollar helped us out: the check for three (no separate checks in Mexico, so Tom and I took turns paying) came to about 1,100 pesos, or about $57, including the meals, beer and tip. Put that restaurant in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles and it would have been three times that, at least.

A bit more expensive was Cafe de Tecuba, not far from the Palacio de Belles Artes, the sort of place that ends up in guidebooks. Indeed, I quote from Moon Mexico City, the book that I had with me: “Occupying two floors of a 17th-century mansion… the fun of eating here is enjoying the Old Mexico atmosphere in the dining room, with its tall wood-beamed ceiling, pretty frescos, and old oil paintings.”

For atmosphere, it was the most aesthetic place we ate. And the food was very good, just not quite as novel as we got other places. I had some enchiladas.

At the other end of the expense spectrum was McDonald’s. Try McDonald’s at least once in each country you visit, to see how it’s different. German McDonald’s have beer, for instance, and the wonderful McTeriyaki is available at Japanese McDonald’s. The only thing different about Australian McDonald’s was that the restaurant stressed to one and all that it served 100% Australian beef.

As for Mexican McDonald’s, it wasn’t so different from its norteamericano counterparts, except that Filet-O-Fish was missing, and the condiments counter had more varieties of local peppers.

One leisurely morning, after the busy day before in Chapultepec Park, we ate at Jaxson’s Chicken & Waffles, a smallish joint in the Roma neighborhood that would not have been out of place in Brooklyn, including the bearded hipsters at other tables. More importantly, the place served up a whopping good breakfast — the kind of large breakfast you eat at 10 or 11 to get you through a day of tourism. Each of us had the special: chicken, waffles, hash browns, bacon and a pancake in there somewhere.

Not far away in Roma, on Fuente de la Cibeles square, is Cancino Cibeles. We ate pizza there al fresco, and while the evenings are a bit chilly in Mexico City in December, the restaurant had heaters on poles near the sidewalk tables, the kind that radiate heat downward (Tom didn’t want to sit too close to it, asserting that it would be too hot for his bald head).

To make things as interesting as possible for a setting like that, we picked the Gorgonzola and pear pizza for the main course, a thin-crust wonder of the pizza arts, and a bottle of wine. I don’t remember the name of the wine. But it was red and Portuguese and had a dignified label.

I’m sure people order a bottle of wine for three people all the time, but it was a rare thing for me. The kind of thing the characters in The Sun Also Rises would do, except that they would drink half a dozen bottles and then go somewhere else and drink absinthe. And then do knife tricks.

Frida, No. Leon, Si.

“This is for the birds,” I said.

There was context for it, but first the setting: we were on the sidewalk on Calle Londres in the Coyoacan neighborhood of Mexico City early in the afternoon of December 29, just outside the Museo Frida Kahlo.

Curiously, besides a street named after London in the area, there were also calles Bruselas, Madrid, Viena, Berlin, and Paris: European capitals. Unlike the part of the Zona Rosa where our hotel was, which had streets named after European cities, capitals and non-capitals: Londres and Berlin (again), but also Roma, Liverpool, Marsella, Hamburgo, Napoles, Oslo.

Coyoacan is a pleasant walking neighborhood, sporting mature trees, sidewalks in reasonably good shape — with not as much pedestrian traffic as in other parts of town we frequented — and large, colorful houses. After a while you do notice that some of the larger houses are essentially walled compounds with iron-bar accents and hard-to-see entrances. Ah well, así es la vida in the big city, if you’re well-to-do.

The most famous compound is the Casa Azul at Londres 247, and blue it is. A deep blue. Like a lot of people, we wanted to visit Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s house. A whole lot of other people, as it turned out. After we got there, we waited a few minutes in one line, only to discover that was the line for people who already had tickets. So we then joined the equally long line to buy tickets.

We’d been advised to buy tickets ahead of time. We ignored that advice. After a few minutes standing in the non-moving ticket-buying line, and with the knowledge that we’d have to stand in another such line eventually, I said waiting was for the birds. Everyone else agreed. No go on Museo Frida Kahlo.

I’m sure the Casa Azul is an excellent museum, but I suspect the real reason for the overcrowding is the movie Frida, which came out in 2002. Her artistic reputation had already been rising, such that Diego Rivera is now her husband, rather than Frida Kahlo being his wife, but I believe the movie kicked it into high gear, the way Nashville has overcrowded the Bluebird Cafe.

Luckily, we had another nearby destination in mind anyway: the Casa de Leon Trotsky. Who could resist that? Not only were Frida and Diego part of the story, it’s got international intrigue, murderous foreign operatives, adultery, a gun battle led by another famous artist, genuine communists and communist plots, and — the crowning event, you might say, an axe murder!

Clearly, Trotsky needs the Hollywood treatment (besides this) if the museum wants to get people in the door, you know, the sort of people who never really heard of that guy Trotsky until they saw that movie about him. Then again, crowds would have drained the fun out of the experience. The Trotsky House wasn’t deserted by any means. A fair number of people were there. But we didn’t have to wait for tickets and crowds didn’t get in the way of free movement around the place, with one exception.

Casa de Leon Trotsky, I’m delighted to report, is quite red on the outside. The present-day complex includes what must have been the building next door at one time, which you enter through and which now has exhibits devoted to the Bolshevik leader. From there, visitors go to a small but very pleasant courtyard with an assortment of plants, walking paths and a few benches.

I don’t know how well tended the garden was in Trotsky’s time, though he did raise chickens and rabbits there. But I do know there was one feature Trotsky never saw himself.
Namely, Trotsky’s grave, where his and Natalia Sedova’s ashes are interred (she died in 1962). Naturally, I couldn’t resist the joke: it’s commie plot. I think I heard that one as long ago as high school, only it was about Stalin’s grave (Lenin and Mao and Ho, strictly speaking, have no graves).

Behind the grave site is the house itself and an attached guard house, for all the good it did Trotsky. The first floor of the guardhouse has a few more exhibits, including photos of Trotsky at various ages and other family members, as well as a family tree. For all of Stalin’s efforts to murder Trotsky’s offspring too, the revolutionary has quite a few living descendants, including in Mexico, the United States and Russia.

The axe wasn’t on display anywhere. That’s because it isn’t even in Mexico.

The house is fairly modest and solidly built, with thick walls and bullet holes on the outside of one of the walls, purportedly left by the unsuccessful May 1940 attempt on Trotsky’s life led by David Alfaro Siqueiros. We saw some of Siqueiros’ murals later, as one does in Mexico City. That Stalinist episode of attempted murder hasn’t seemed to have harmed his reputation as an artist.

Trotsky had reason to be security-conscious, and the compound reflects it. Besides the guardhouse, which includes a guard tower, the entire residence is surrounded by thick walls. Its doors are heavy and, at least going into Trotsky’s study, re-enforced with iron. I didn’t see any steel window shutters or barbed wire, but I read these were part of the security too. None of that stopped a determined NKVD agent with an ice axe.

The study itself is supposedly the way Trotsky left it: a large desk, a lamp, chairs, papers and books, a Dictaphone, a small bed on which to rest (see the picture here). The floor, I noticed, is painted red. It was here that moving around was a little constrained, since you can only stand in a small part of the room, like in most house museums, and visitors want to see the study most of all. I know I did.

The current setup at Trotsky’s House includes a small cafe next to the guardhouse. We had a light lunch al fresco there, cheese crepes for me, and some of the best orange juice I’ve had in a long time. All in all, a bourgeois sort of meal. I expect the waiter was paid for his efforts and presumably the museum made a modest amount, which it probably needs to keep the lights on.

The museum also features a small gift shop at the entrance, heavy on socialist books and portraits of Trotsky for sale and light on tourist gimcracks, though I bought some postcards there. I doubt that the organization is using any of its budget to foment worldwide socialist revolution.

Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe

We visited the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, in the northern part of Mexico City, 18 days after Our Lady of Guadalupe’s feast day, which is December 12. The new basilica and the old basilica, and the large plaza they occupy, were all crowded the day we were there. This was the scene just in front of the new basilica.
I can only imagine what it would have been like on the 12th. Every paving stone in the plaza would probably have had someone standing on it, or kneeling. As it was people were milling around, though I did see a couple of pilgrims making their way along on their knees.

A wider view at the new basilica, at roughly the same afternoon moment.
The orange-shirted men appeared to be pilgrims on bicycles, arriving to pay their respects to Guadalupe just as we entered the grounds. I don’t know who they were, but I didn’t doubt their devotion.
According to one wag I read recently, Mexico is about 80 percent Catholic these days, but 120 percent Guadalupean. (I would have thought the Catholic percentage was higher, but it seems that religious apathy and Protestantism have gained ground in recent decades.)

The new basilica, as these things go, is quite new — finished in 1976. Turns out the old basilica, built on dodgy soils, was at some risk of collapsing. Pedro Ramirez Vazquez, Gabriel Chavez de la Mor, and José Luis Benllioure designed the structure. Modernist it may be, but the new one has its charms, especially inside.
I’ve read that anyone from any spot in the basilica can see Juan Diego’s cactus-fiber cloak with the image of the Virgin on it. I certainly was able to see it, though the glare was pretty strong. A mass was under way, so we didn’t get that close.

The old basilica was closed after the new one opened, and stayed closed until the building was stabilized in 2000. It’s a fine old colonial structure designed by one Pedro de Arrieta and finished in 1709.

Inside is the the altarpiece that used to hold the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Behind the old basilica is an even older shrine on Tepeyac Hill, where the Virgin appeared to Juan Diego, but considering that we’d been climbing pyramids earlier in the day, no one wanted to climb the hill to see it.

One more thing, not visible in my pictures. Under the plaza is a sizable underground parking garage and an even bigger religious items gift shop, the largest of that kind of retail that I’ve ever seen. If you want to find just the right souvenir statue or painting or other image of the Virgin — and I was told the faces can vary considerably in their small details — that’s the place to spend some time looking. I just bought a few postcards.