The Weekender, December 21, 2018

1) “The Postal Inspector Who Took Down America’s First Organized Crime Ring” (Politico, 15 minutes, September 2018.) This involves something called the Society of the Banana, which is a great name for a fake crime syndicate. Except that it’s a real crime syndicate…. or was. (And thanks to Michael G. for the suggestion!)

On the night of April 18, 1908, in the railroad town of Bellefontaine, Ohio, about 50 miles northwest of Columbus, 18-year-old Charles Demar walked into the fruit shop he owned with his uncle, Salvatore Cira, and put a bullet into his uncle’s head. Salvatore’s body was discovered later that night by his wife among crates of bananas and apples spattered with his blood. When the police arrived, Mrs. Cira appeared not to understand them, or at least she pretended she didn’t speak English. This wasn’t unusual; the police commonly ran into this problem with Italian immigrants who wanted nothing to do with law enforcement on any level. The most preyed-upon victims were often unwilling to give police any leads, even if they’d personally seen a suspect commit a crime against a loved one.

It’s not that Bellefontaine police lacked investigative skills. No law enforcement institution in the nation had been able to penetrate the criminal organizations that had begun quietly terrorizing cities across America, particularly those with large populations of immigrants from Italy. Nearly 6 million Italian immigrants entered the country in the last two decades of the 1800s and organized crime, common in their native country, often found its way across the Atlantic, too. Increasingly in the papers, the gruesome crimes were credited to “Black Hand” criminals because of several recovered threat letters penned by “La Mano Nero” that demanded exorbitant payments, or death.

The Bellefontaine cops searched the premises of Demar’s Fruit Importers and collected as much evidence as they could. What they found tipped them off to the idea that the murder was more sinister than a random killing. In the dead man’s pants pocket, there were two letters written in Italian. Knowing they had no chance of getting anywhere by interviewing friends or relatives of Cira, the cops were hopeful that the letters would lead to a break in the case. They also knew that their work was done, because the letters put the murder squarely under the jurisdiction of the United States Post Office Department and its inspectors.

2)  “Is a Burrito (Legally) a Sandwich?” From Now I Know, the YouTube channel!

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3) “Why People Wait 10 Days to Do Something That Takes 10 Minutes” (The Atlantic, under 10 minutes, December 2018.) As the subhead says, “chores are the worst.”

4) The Now I Know Week in Review:

Monday: The Starbucks That Never Gets Your Name Wrong — It’s like Cheers, but backward.

Tuesday: Why Men Button Their Suits Like That — The tale behind the unbuttoned bottom button.

Wednesday: The Great Christmas Card Campaign — Honestly, this is a really fun idea and I wish I had thought of it (and had the time to do it well).

Thursday: A Smoker Walks Into a Bar and… — How to get around anti-smoking bans.


5)  “The absurd quest to make the ‘best’ razor” (Vox, 22 minutes, December 2018).

According to [global market research firm ] Mintel, sales of “shaving and hair removal tools” are estimated to see about $3.5 billion in sales in 2018, a decline of nearly 4 percent from the year before. Worse, Mintel’s analysts predict there will be no growth for at least the next five years.

Yet in tandem with the downward spiral of the necessity of shaving tools, we are experiencing the arrival of an extreme number of new shaving tools to buy. At the same time, there’s only so much true innovation possible for an item like a razor, which does one thing and almost always does it well.

It’s a classic example of capitalism working not quite the way that was promised but the way it does when put into practice by humans. We see it time and again — with the hotel industry, with cable TV, now with razors: Shrinking markets are not allowed to simply shrink, but instead inspire aggressive pandering, bizarre advertising, and nichification of products that have no reason to be so differentiated.

A surplus of choice implies to consumers that this is the type of purchase they should care deeply about. Why else would there be so many options?

6) “Why gambling used to scare baseball and why it doesn’t anymore” (SBNation, 13 minutes, December 2018). The subhead: “Baseball and gambling used to be mortal enemies. Here’s how they fell in love.”

Have a great weekend!