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Anthony Fiala: Soldier, Explorer, Artist

Jun 13, 2011 1:25 PM | 1 comment

If the three piece suit and rifle don't make you a believer, maybe a few headlines will convince you that Anthony Fiala, in his own time and in his own way, was one bad dude.

 New York Times May 6, 1928

 Brooklyn Daily Eagle October 13, 1922

Brooklyn Daily Eagle February 8, 1928

Brooklyn Daily Eagle August 29, 1927

Ok, maybe racing canoes is a stretch, but the following clipping, which appears beneath the page-long and inch-high headline: "Fiala Plans Hunt for Live Mammoths in Siberia" from a 1927 Eagle may just provide the best glimpse of this man's character.

Not only did Fiala believe that mammoths still roamed the Earth (it took guts to refute all that science!), but he believed he ought to set out on a hunting expedition to kill a few of them and, as he promised one Eagle reporter, share any of the meat he bagged. Along with his service for the American committee for Defense of British Homes during World War II, whereby he sought to arm both British and American citizens against any possible Fifth Column uprising, it's hard not to think of Anthony Fiala as a Ted Nugent for the Jazz Age. Hunting, guns, adventure; all he needed was a pair of hot pants and a flying V.

But comparing the long-time Bay Ridge resident (he lived at 148 83rd Street) to The Nuge doesn't really do him justice. No disrespect to the Motor City Madman, but Anthony Fiala was a remarkable man in his own right. And though the above clippings make Fiala out to be a rugged man of action, he wasn't always such a rough and tumble kind of guy. Before embarking on the boiling rivers of Brazil with Teddy Roosevelt, heading up a machine gun unit in the First Cavalry, and marooning himself on floating ice cakes with polar bears, Fiala was an artist.

The article goes on to describe Fiala as "a quiet soldier, gentle as a girl in manner, yet dashing and efficient in the field." Indeed, it was during his time with Troop C that Fiala transformed himself from a slender, delicate photoengraver for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle to a bronzed and rugged adventurer. 

This photo appears in the book Troop "C" in Service: An Account of the Part Played by Troop "C" of the New York Volunteer Cavalry in the Spanish-American War of 1898, which Fiala wrote and helped to illustrate with numerous photographs and sketches.

One of Fiala's photos.

And a sketch.

Before volunteering for the cavalry, Fiala was best known for his "chalk talks" and cartoon work. From 1894 to 1899 Fiala was in charge of art engraving for the Eagle, having installed the paper's first photo-engraving plant in 1894, and his work there carried over into numerous lectures and demonstrations, such as the one advertised below on so-called "Surface Signs." A study in physiognomy, Fiala would draw faces on a chalkboard and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the various lips, noses, and ears he sketched.  


In fact, more than anything else, it was Fiala's talent as an artist that that led to his life as an adventurer. In his first expedition, the Baldwin-Ziegler Polar expedition, he served as crew photographer. Here is a letter he wrote to an unnamed Brooklyn man which the Eagle published on Septmber 14, 1901.

In addition to taking numerous photographs on these expeditions, Fiala also shot the first films beyond the Arctic Circle.

In searching YouTube I was able to track down some footage posted by the British Film Institute.

The Library of Congress has also posted a compilation of film footage taken during Theodore Roosevelt's 1913-1914 trip to Brazil along the "River of Doubt." If you watch the opening credits you'll see that our own Anthony Fiala is thanked for the footage he has provided.

Following his days of high adventure through jungles and over glaciers, Fiala returned to Bay Ridge. He often gave illustrated lectures on the expeditions of which he was a part and, rather than completely retiring from the explorer's game, opened up a store where one could find lion nets, elephant guns, and sleeping bags (which, according to one obituary of Fiala, was invented by the man himself.)

We have numerous clippings related to Fiala, each one describing the man's unique and inimitable life. One death notice in the Eagle put his passing this way: "The passing of Maj. Anthony Fiala of Bay Ridge at the age of 80 brings to a close a life rich in adventure. It is doubtful whether its like could be lived again in our time." 

It's #AskArchivists Day!

Jun 9, 2011 11:15 AM | 0 comments

Were you aware that today is International Archives Day?  On this day in 1948, the International Council on Archives was created by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), charged with the mission to "promote the management and use of records and archives, and the preservation of the archival heritage of humanity around the world."  Today is a day when archives all over the world can toot their respective horns to raise awareness of the myriad of collections they have to offer.  With enough of us tooting, we hope to raise a veritable cacaphony!

But enough about tooting--the way to celebrate International Archives Day this year is by tweeting.  We and more than a hundred other archives across the globe are participating in #AskArchivists Day, and you can too!  Just tweet any questions you have about archives and mark them with the hash tag #AskArchivists, then sit back and watch the answers roll in.  You can ask about how to find genealogical information, ask a specific archive about their collections, or ask an archivist about their job.  Still looking for inspiration?  Check out the twitter fountain below for ideas!

A Season to Forget: 1951 Scandal Mars LIU Basketball Program, by Nora Almeida

Jun 9, 2011 10:00 AM | 0 comments

Our guest blogger this week is Nora Almeida, whom we're happy to have working with us through the Project CHART grant.  Nora recently digitized the crime photographs collection from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle files, and turned up this story in the process.

People love a scandal—particularly a public scandal involving the rich and famous.  A few weeks ago, the front page of the Sunday New York Times ran a story called “The Gossip Machine,” which exposed just how lucrative the gossip industry has become thanks to our ever growing “appetite for dirt.”  Perhaps we are drawn to scandals because they reveal that even celebrities are human and not invulnerable to the kinds of humiliating errors that ruin ordinary folks.  Perhaps we like to think that, if put in the same position, we would do things differently.

Less satisfying are the scandals involving regular people and the would-be-heroes, those who fall from grace without realizing their potential.  Such is the case with a bygone NYC college basketball gambling controversy that ruined the reputations and athletic careers of more than 9 promising players from Long Island University, City College, and New York University. 

During that blighted 1951 season, top players were implicated in a point-shaving scandal that resulted in a 6 year shut down of the L.I.U. athletic program and the imprisonment of several players.  Athletes from the three colleges took ‘fix’ bribes from Salvatore Sollazzo, a professional gambler with a prison record, to narrow point margins and in some cases, purposely throw games.

L.I.U. players, left and below, were booked on "charges of acting to 'throw' college basketball games," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 20, 1951.

When the point shaving scandal hit the papers in 1951, L.I.U. and CCNY were already two of the most watched teams in the country.  A first-string player on the L.I.U. team was the nation’s leading scorer and CCNY players were riding the momentum of a great 1950 season, when they won both the NCAA championship and the National Invitation Tournament. 


The images of these young men playing basketball seem out of place in a collection of historic photos documenting crime in Brooklyn during the mid-1900s.  Many Brooklynites found something wrong about this picture in 1951, as well.  Students interviewed during the wake of the scandal indicated that the schools didn’t do enough to support the players and capitalized on their talents without providing funding or adequate housing.  It is no surprise that many of the players’ classmates and fans stood by the team and saw the boys as the unfortunate victims of bureaucrats and thugs like Sollazzo.

L.I.U. students protest in front of their school, demanding the reinstatement of the sports program and the players who confessed to accepting bribes.

In a 1998 interview with the New York Times, one of the players involved in the controversy acknowledged that he was responsible for his own poor decisions but also noted:
 "There were a lot of people involved besides the ballplayers. Nobody has addressed what was the coach's responsibility, what was the school's responsibility, what was the venue we played in's responsibility. I heard people make all kinds of bets at the Garden.”

In a February 1951 Brooklyn Daily Eagle editorial, Robert M. Grannis professed that the point-shaving scandal was not an isolated event but unfortunate evidence of a “national disease,” the decline of ethics and the complacency of young people. In fact, gambling was so widespread at the time that printed betting cards like this one (right) circulated around Madison Square Garden like popcorn.  

Grannis indicated that while upsetting, the scandal was anything but surprising: “it is as natural to the spiritual code of and morals of 1951 as fleas are to a dog.”  When it was all over, Sollazzo was again behind bars, several players were barred from the NBA, and the ideals of a community were shattered. And perhaps none of us are truly absolved, as purveyors of scandal, we too get caught up in the momentum of the game and in the wheels of the machinery of the gossip mill.