10 Surprising Secrets From St. Louis History

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Founded a quarter millennia ago, St. Louis, Missouri, is today known for its iconic and mysteriously futuristic arch. Here are 10 things you may not know about the city's history.

1. ST. LOUIS IS RIDDLED WITH CAVES SAID TO HAVE BEEN USED BY ESCAPED SLAVES, BOOTLEGGERS, AND MORE.

The caves below St. Louis were widely used for at least 10,000 years. A local tradition says that these caves played a vital role in the Underground Railroad, providing shelter for those fleeing the slave state of Missouri. During Prohibition, the caves made natural bootlegger vaults. Even after the repeal, many city residents found refuge in these underground spaces, which were cool in summer and warm in winter. Over the 20th century, hidden warrens that had once provided secret taverns and beer cellars metamorphosed into underground churches, warehouses, nightclubs, roller rinks, and even a 300-seat theater. One enterprising brewing family even used an underground stream below their manor as a family pool (where, rumor has it, blind fish would occasionally make an appearance).

2. ICE CREAM CONES REPORTEDLY DEBUTED IN ST. LOUIS. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The 1904 St. Louis World's Fair has few modern precedents. The city celebrated the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase with grand edifices, concourses, lagoons, and palaces. According to tradition, in the midst of all the hubbub, a concessionaire named Ernest A. Hamwi found himself selling small waffle-like pastries next to an overwhelmed ice cream vendor. When his neighbor ran out of dishes, Hamwi rolled his confection into a tiny cone, and the rest is conical history. But like all great inventions, several people came to the same idea independently; other claimants include Antonio Valvona, who in 1902 patented an “Apparatus for baking biscuit-cups for ice-cream,” and Frank and Charlie Menches, whose descendants claim they wrapped dough around a sailor’s tool for the Medina County Fair in Ohio a few months before St. Louis’s Fair. (For food historians, the debate about what counts as the "first" ice cream cone lives on.)

3. ST. LOUIS WAS ONCE A MAJOR AMERICAN COFFEE HUB. 

Back when the Mississippi River was the closest thing to an information superhighway, St. Louis was well-positioned to receive exotic shipments. In the 18th century, coffee arrived from French traders, and in the 19th century it came up from New Orleans. By the early 20th century, St. Louis was the largest inland distributor of coffee in the world, although demographic changes had dethroned the city by the time of the Great Depression. 

4. ONE OF ITS MOST FAMOUS STATUES HAD TO BE MOVED BECAUSE IT WAS FREQUENTLY SUBMERGED IN THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER. 

In 2006, St. Louis erected The Captains’ Return, a mighty bronze statue celebrating the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark’s arrival back in civilization. Depicting a boat landing, the sculpture made its home on the St. Louis Wharf. But the Mississippi River is subject to water level swings of up to 50 feet; at half that depth, Lewis was completely submerged, and Clark’s triumphant wave transformed into a frantic cry for help. Eight years after installation, the sculpture was removed and relocated to higher ground. Bronze being porous, it took a year to dry out.

5. ST. LOUIS HAD THE NATION’S LAST PNEUMATIC TUBE SYSTEM. 

Tube delivery is now relegated to drive-through windows at banks and pharmacies. But in the 19th century, pneumatic mail dispatch was all the rage. New York City had the largest such system, at 55 miles. St. Louis’s tube network was the smallest, with only four miles, and it was the last such system built by a major American city. By the early 20th century, a futuristic new technology known as “the car” put a swift end to tube networks everywhere. 

6. A SECRET SOCIETY FOUNDED IN THE 1870S CREATED AN ANNUAL DEBUTANTES BALL THAT STILL RUNS TODAY.

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 unleashed several political aftershocks, perhaps none so strange as the Veiled Prophet Ball. This annual event, created by a secret society of "Veiled Prophets" (really St. Louis elite), gave a nod to Mardi Gras, but did so with a Byzantine level of pomp and ritual that bordered on menacing—the first “prophets” sported Klan-like hoods and shotguns. In the 1990s, the event was renamed the Fair Saint Louis and moved to the waterfront; these days, the annual celebration shows few signs of its symbolic roots (although the city still acknowledges the Fair’s early role in “reinforcing the notion of a benevolent cultural elite”).

7. A JAZZ AGE BALLROOM HAS BEEN WALLED OFF FOR SIX DECADES.

Built for the 1904 exposition, the Hotel Jefferson was extensively overhauled in the 1920s. Included in this remodel was an exquisite, two-story art deco ballroom with rippling balconies, a massive chandelier, and a 1200-person capacity dance floor. The space closed in the 1950s, and when the building reopened as affordable senior living two decades later, the ballroom was walled off. But the room itself is still intact, if a bit dusty (and closed off to the public). Adding to the creepy factor is the venue’s name, The Gold Room, which was also the name of the haunted ballroom that eventually seduced Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

8. ONE OF THE WORLD’S FIRST SKYSCRAPERS WAS BUILT IN ST. LOUIS IN THE 1890S.

Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Wainwright Building wasn’t the tallest building in 1890s America (Chicago and New York had taller). But it was the first skyscraper to look the part, embracing its height with a sheer wall of windows instead of tiered floors or overhanging ledges. Built by a Chicago firm for a wealthy local brewer, the building was designed with the visual language of Roman columns—including an ornamented base and crown—and was eventually awarded City Landmark, National Historic Landmark, and National Register of Historic Places. Frank Lloyd Wright called it "the very first human expression of a tall steel office-building as architecture." These days, its ten floors seem a bit more meager, dwarfed by the futuristic Gateway Arch just six blocks away.  

9. DURING CONSTRUCTION OF THE ST. LOUIS ARCH, THE TWO SIDES NEEDED TO BE ACCURATE WITHIN 1/64TH OF AN INCH. 

The Gateway Arch is the nation’s tallest national monument, an honor that does little to convey its actual immensity. The Arch is four times taller than the Statue of Liberty (not including the statue's pedestal). It weighs more than 200 space shuttles. Yet the site surveying—done at night, lest the sun’s rays cause measurement distortions—had to match both legs with only 1/64th of an inch worth of wiggle room (that’s smaller than a mechanical pencil lead). A variance that was any wider would have kept the legs from connecting properly and doomed the structural load. If that seems like an impressive feat, here’s another: It was constructed in the mid-'60s, meaning without the assistance of personal computers.

10. DIRECTOR JOHN CARPENTER ONCE PURCHASED A ST. LOUIS BRIDGE FOR $1 WHILE FILMING ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK.

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Manhattan was too expensive for Carpenter’s 1981 sci-fi dystopia. It also wasn’t nearly dystopian enough. A series of fires had ravaged parts of St. Louis in 1976, so the director decided to use the desolate streets as one huge backlot. For the film’s climax—a car chase across the “69th Street Bridge”—he arranged to buy the abandoned Chain of Rocks bridge, on the north edge of St. Louis, for $1 (the purchase removed local governments from any liability). As soon as filming wrapped, the director was refunded his money.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Is It Illegal to Falsely Shout 'Fire' in a Crowded Theater?

Fortunately, nobody incited a stampede at New York's Metropolitan Opera House on this night in 1937.
Fortunately, nobody incited a stampede at New York's Metropolitan Opera House on this night in 1937.
National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

If you asked a few random people to name a situation that wouldn’t be protected under the First Amendment’s “freedom of speech” clause, there’s a pretty good chance at least one of them would mention the example of someone shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater (when there’s no fire). Over the last century, the scene has been used far and wide to illustrate that if your “free speech” harms people, you can still end up in the defendant’s chair. But, as is so often the case when it comes to interpreting the law, it’s really not that simple.

Panic Room

The aftermath of the Iroquois Theatre fire.Fire-Truck.Ru, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

When people first started discussing human fire alarms at packed gatherings, it was less about constitutional debate and more about societal menace. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there were dozens of tragedies [PDF]—mainly in the U.S., but also abroad—where false shouts of “Fire!” provoked panic that resulted in multiple innocent, and avoidable, deaths. In 1913, for example, residents of Calumet, Michigan, held a Christmas party for the children of copper miners on strike. Hundreds of people gathered on the second floor of Italian Hall, and when an unidentified perpetrator (possibly motivated by anti-union sentiments) yelled “Fire!” they all rushed to the stairs. The stampede claimed 73 victims, most of whom were children.

The fear of fire wasn’t unfounded. Since not all buildings had sprinkler systems, neon exit signs, and capacity limits, plenty of fatal blazes occurred. More than 600 people died in Chicago’s Iroquois Theater fire in 1903, even though (ironically) that building was actually thought to be fireproof.

In short, shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater was an idea firmly entrenched in the public consciousness by the time judges co-opted the phrase for legal arguments on First Amendment rights.

Discussing Fire in a Crowded Courtroom

We mustache Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. a question about First Amendment rights.National Photo Company, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Wikimedia Commons // No Known Restrictions on Publication

The axiom became popular in legal spheres after Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. mentioned it during Schenck v. United States in 1919, but he wasn’t the first person to use it in court. As Carlton F.W. Lawson pointed out in a 2015 article in the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, U.S. attorney Edwin Wertz had uttered a lengthier version of it the previous year while prosecuting activist Eugene Debs. In fact, since Holmes ruled on Debs’s appeal the very week after the Schenck case, he may have even gotten the idea from Wertz.

Each case involved a violation of the Espionage Act of 1917, which essentially made it punishable to do anything that interfered with U.S. military operations—including speaking out against the draft. Debs, a pacifist who opposed World War I, was under fire for a speech he had given in Ohio; and Charles T. Schenck, the U.S. Socialist Party’s general secretary, landed in front of the Supreme Court for passing out pamphlets that encouraged men to refuse the draft.

Both defendants were convicted, and Holmes justified his ruling on the Schenck case with the explanation that “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting ‘fire’ in a theater and causing a panic.” But while his analogy struck an emotional chord, it really had nothing to do with constitutional law.

“The ‘crowded theater’ statement in Schenck never amounted to any kind of binding standard or doctrine,” Nashwa Gewaily, a media and First Amendment lawyer, tells Mental Floss. “It was basically a bit of emotionally charged extra flair from Justice Holmes, outside the official legal determination of that case; a powerful image that endured outside its context ... It was not a high point in American jurisprudence.”

“Revengeance” Is Fine

What Holmes said after it, however, did become a standard for future free speech arguments. “The question in every case,” he said, “is whether the words are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.”

For the next 50 years, clear and present danger was the accepted—and slightly vague—metric for discerning if spoken or printed material was protected speech. Then, in 1969, the Supreme Court replaced it with something clearer. The case, Brandenburg v. Ohio, concerned a Ku Klux Klan leader named Clarence Brandenburg who had broken Ohio’s law against advocating “crime, sabotage, or unlawful methods of terrorism” for political purposes. (In his offending speech, he had mentioned the possibility of “revengeance” [sic] if the federal government didn’t stop “[suppressing] the white, Caucasian race.”)

Brandenburg appealed his guilty verdict all the way up to the Supreme Court, which overturned the ruling on the grounds that his threats were too ambiguous to “[incite] or [produce] imminent lawless action.” In order for something to qualify as imminent lawless action, it must: expressly advocate violence, advocate immediate violence, and relate to violence likely to occur.

As Gewaily explains, judges interpret this standard “far more narrowly than many would presume.” While individual institutions may condemn hate speech, for example, it’s technically protected under the law unless there’s “immediate violence” involved.

When Free Speech Is the Least of Your Worries

So, does falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater fall outside the conditions of imminent lawless action, and therefore fall under First Amendment protection? The short answer is that it depends on the circumstances. But here’s the long answer: If you get arrested for doing that, the charges brought against you might make the question of free speech totally irrelevant.

“The falsely shouted warning, while technically speech, could potentially violate a state's criminal laws against disturbing the peace or disorderly conduct, whether or not it provokes a stampede, for instance,” Gewaily says. And if there is a stampede in which somebody dies, you could be charged with involuntary manslaughter. In other words, there’s no law that explicitly prohibits you from crying “Fire” in a theater. It’s the other laws you’d have to worry about.

Shouting “Bomb!” or “Gun!” in public would put you in a similar situation. In May 2018, for example, officials had to evacuate part of Daytona Beach International Airport after a man ran naked through the building screaming about a bomb in the women’s bathroom. There was no bomb, but he was charged with “false report of a bomb,” “criminal mischief,” and “exposure of sexual organs,” among other things. In that case, no self-respecting lawyer would advise him to claim his actions were protected by the First Amendment.

That said, there’s good news for anyone whose panicked cry is an honest mistake. “Someone who shouts a warning in genuine error, with an intent to galvanize movement to safety, would not be properly punished for that speech,” Gewaily says.

And if Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. has taught us anything, it’s that not every word a Supreme Court Justice says automatically counts as constitutional doctrine.

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