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Subject: Joseph Nathan Kane, Master of Minutiae

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Date Posted: September 27, 2002 1:44:49 EDT

Joseph Nathan Kane, whose lifelong obsession with facts led him to write exhaustive reference works that cataloged such things as the nicknames of presidents, when the first Eskimo Pie was created (1922), when the first camels were brought to America (1721) and the precise patent number of the first safety pin in the United States, died on Sunday in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Joseph Nathan Kane in 1999

He was 103 and until a few years ago lived not far from where he was born as the 19th century ended, on the West Side of Manhattan.

Among Mr. Kane's books were "Famous First Facts: A Record of First Happenings, Discoveries and Inventions in the United States," first published in 1933; "More First Facts" (1935), which included information that somehow did not make it into the first book; "1,000 Facts Worth Knowing" (1938); and "What Dog Is That?" (1944), an intensive summary of the characteristics of 122 purebreds recognized by the American Kennel Club.

He also wrote an official fact-filled history of the King Solomon Lodge No. 279 of the Free and Accepted Masons, of which he happened to be a member.

His books can be found in libraries across the country. His name is blessed by harried researchers and librarians who turn to his work when asked for encyclopedical minutiae by writers, editors and members of the fact-crazy American public. For the seekers of history's flyspecks, Mr. Kane was Solomon, Zeus and Jupiter all rolled into one.

History, he strongly felt, had little value unless it was based on fact bare fact, simple fact, unvarnished fact, brutal fact, stubborn fact, demonstrable fact, facts about huge events and factoids about long-ago doings seemingly so inconsequential that nobody cared about them.

He was not the first American factualist (Henry W. Ruoff edited a Standard Dictionary of Facts in 1914, when Mr. Kane was a teenager), but Mr. Kane, who worked alone, was arguably the genre's virtuoso.

He spent the better part of 100 years in the mustiest rooms of the dankest libraries, digging up facts. He would take them back to his cluttered West Side apartment, commit them to index cards, lovingly organize and catalog them and savor their presence until he set them free in his books.

Mr. Kane specialized in Americana because, he said, he knew that if he tried to include the rest of the world, it would be too much for him. And so in Mr. Kane's work one learns that James Madison was our shortest president, at 5 feet 4 inches, and that Madison's last words were, "I always talk better lying down."

Mr. Kane was not just a trivialist he was a factualist with a conscience who cared passionately about giving credit where credit was due. He felt that some historical figures received credit for accomplishments that should have gone to people who were virtually unknown, like the New Yorker Walter Hunt, who is believed to have devised the first American stitch-lock sewing machine in 1832. Hunt failed to patent it, however, and so when the history of sewing machines was written, credit went to Elias Howe, A. B. Wilson and Isaac Singer, who came later but knew a thing or two about self-promotion.

"The credit," Mr. Kane declared, "seemed to go to the inventor with the best publicity agent."

It was with considerable pride that Mr. Kane determined that the first American commercially built automobiles were not the work of Henry Ford or Walter Chrysler or David Buick, but of Charles Edgar Duryea, who opened the Duryea Motor Wagon Company in Springfield, Mass., in 1895.

From Mr. Kane's work one learned that Grover Cleveland had 20 nicknames, more than any other president. They included Dumb Prophet, Buffalo Hangman, Grover the Good, Old Veto and Perpetual Candidate.

Mr. Kane insisted that, contrary to what every schoolchild learned in third grade, the Declaration of Independence was not signed on July 4, 1776. He said it was "fairly engrossed on parchment" on July 19 of that year and not signed by 50 of those who agreed to it until Aug. 2. Six others did not sign it until even later.

Mr. Kane even determined that George Washington was not really the first president of the United States. Washington did not get the job until the Constitution was ratified. But Thomas McKean was named president of the United States back in 1781 by the Congress that convened under the Articles of Confederation eight years before Washington took office.

Mr. Kane disliked keeping facts to himself. He had a need to update his books with new facts, even when he was old and it was harder for him to go to the library. He lived on the 17th floor, but the elevator went only to the 15th floor and so he had to climb two flights every time he came home from a fact-finding mission.

People wondered if he would ever stop working. Despite his sedentary calling, Mr. Kane remained spry and active until he broke his hip when he was 97, his nephew David N. Kane said.

He told anyone who asked that he had made a Faustian pact with the devil. "I'll be ready to go two days after I finish my last project," he said.

He long outlived that project, "Necessity's Child: The Story of Walter Hunt, America's Forgotten Inventor" (McFarland). It was about Mr. Kane's hero, the actual inventor of the sewing machine, not to mention the fountain pen and the safety pin.

Mr. Kane moved to Florida when he was in his mid 90's, but he sold his last book at the age of 98, his sister, Ann Kane Madier, said. He never married and she is his only immediate survivor.

Joseph Nathan Kane was born on Jan. 23, 1899, at 201 West 117th Street, the eldest of three children of Albert Norman Kane, a fur importer, and the former Hulda Ascheim. His paternal grandfather composed music played by marching and concert bands. As a child, Joseph Kane learned to play the mandolin, violin and banjo, but his real interest lay in driving his teachers crazy.

"At school, I would ask, `How do you know?' " he told an interviewer from Current Biography. "And that was usually at the end of the discussion."

Late in life, he told a reporter for The Associated Press, "I'm stupid enough not to believe anything until I see the proof."

He went to Public School 10, then on West 117th Street, and Columbia University, where he had a whole new staff of teachers to torment.

He expected to serve in World War I and took a conditional enlistment in the Army, assuming that the military could use some training he had picked up in electrical engineering. But he became a victim of the influenza epidemic of 1918 and nearly became one of its fatalities.

After the war, he was hired by a New York confectioner, D. Auerbach & Sons, because he could speak and read French, German and Spanish. He eventually ran the export division, and began writing articles about the export business for trade journals. His material was syndicated for many years, and he also wrote for publications including Advertising Age, Printers' Ink and Nation's Business. He also wrote articles for newspapers including The New York Times.

In the late 1920's he decided to write his first book about achievers forgotten by history. It was rejected by 11 publishers, but the 12th, H. W. Wilson, accepted it, and thus in "Famous First Facts" the world learned that the first sheep were imported into the United States in 1609, that the first African-American Army major was Martin Robinson Delaney, and that the first subway built in America (in 1870) was the Beach Pneumatic Underground Railway in New York. In a brief unsigned review of that book in 1933, The Times said the author showed "a dogged resolution of almost superhuman force."

Mr. Kane continued digging for facts, and in 1938 he was invited to create and star in a half-hour radio show, "Famous First Facts."

Mr. Kane's research took him in quirky directions. For example, he noticed that he learned all kinds of things about people who had been named after George Washington, so he made a category out of them. Besides George Washington Carver, the agricultural chemist, there was a George Washington Julian, who ran for vice president on the Free Soil Party ticket; as well as George Washington Dixon, who became a minstrel; George Washington Morgan, a colonel in the Mexican War; and George Washington Crile, a doctor in the Spanish-American War.

This sort of information made him sought after when broadcasting's quiz shows came into their own. Starting in the 1940's, he was asked to write questions for shows like "Break the Bank," "Double or Nothing" and "The $64,000 Question."

His research on the origins of the names of all the counties in the United States was published in 1955 as "The American Counties: A Record of the Origin of the Names of 3,067 Counties, Dates of Creation and Organization, Area, Population, Historical Data, etc."

Mr. Kane had personal ties to his facts. In a safe-deposit box he kept the first fountain pen made in this country, a shoe with a heel that could be rotated for wear, and Walter Hunt's 1849 patent model for the first American safety pin, with its number 6,281 still on it.

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