Wednesday, January 31, 2007

January 31

American Private Eddie Slovik was shot for desertion on this date in 1945. He had abandoned the 109th Infantry Regimen, 28th Infantry Division in October 1944, just two months after arriving in France. Because of his record of petty criminality as a youth in Detroit, Slovik was originally declared unfit for military service in 1942. As the meat-grinder of war proceeded, however, his classification was changed and Eddie Slovik was declared fit for duty in 1944. Slovik was despondent during basic training and announced his intent to “run away” from his assignment, believing that he would spend at most a few months in prison. Instead, a nine-man jury convicted him of violating the 58th Article of War in November 1944 and sentenced him to death by firing squad.

Slovik appealed to General Dwight David Eisenhower for clemency but was denied two days before Christmas; desertion had become a problem among US soldiers, and the General was eager to set a deterrent example. Sixty-two years ago today, Eddie Slovik's sentence was carried out near the French village of Ste Marie aux Mines. Of the 49 American deserters sentenced to die during the war, Slovik’s sentence was the only one not commuted. In addition to Pvt. Slovik, 21,048 American soldiers deserted their units during World War II.

Just before he was shot, Slovik was urged by one of his executioners "take it easy, Eddie. Try to make it easy on yourself -- and on us."

"Don't worry about me," Slovik responded. "I'm okay. They're not shooting me for deserting the United Stated Army -- thousands of guys have done that. They're shooting me for bread I stole when I was 12 years old."

In the last letter he ever wrote, Slovik mused to his wife that “Everything happens to me. I've never had a streak of luck in my life. The only luck I had in my life was when I married you. I knew it wouldn't last because I was too happy. I knew they would not let me be happy.”

Antoinette Slovik had never actually been told that her husband was to be shot. The army insisted afterward that the young private should have told her himself. Riven with grief and anger, Antoinette struggled to clear her husband’s name until her own death in 1979. She asked seven American presidents -- including Dwight Eisenhower -- to issue her husband a pardon. All refused.

Photo credit

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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

January 30

Today is the anniversary of the "Bloody Sunday" massacre in Derry, Northern Ireland in 1972. During a routine protest against British rule, soldiers from the British Parachute
Regimen shot 26 unarmed demonstrators in the Bogside area of Derry, which had been a nationalist stronghold for two years. When British commanders received erroneous word that Irish Republican Army snipers were among the crowd, live rounds replaced rubber bullets and thirteen people died; a fourteenth died several months later from the wounds he received that day. Most of the dead and injured were shot as they fled the paratroopers, and none were armed. General Sir Robert Ford, commander of land forces in Northern Ireland, claimed after the melee that his troops had fired only three shots.

According to the Coroner’s report, issued 20 months after the attack,
[T]he Army ran amok that day and shot without thinking what they were doing. They were shooting innocent people. These people may have been taking part in a march that was banned but that does not justify the troops coming in and firing live rounds indiscriminately. I would say without hesitation that it was sheer, unadulterated murder.

The Widgery Commission Report, which whitewashed the events of 30 January 1972, found that the army's conduct had merely "bordered on the reckless."


Oliver Cromwell, military commander of the Protestant armies during the English Civil War and Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England from 1653-1658, was executed at Tyburn gallows on this date in 1661. A decade before, following English tradition, Cromwell himself had laid waste to northeastern Ireland. After being hanged, Cromwell was decapitated; while his head was mounted on a post and displayed outside Westminster Abbey, his body was reportedly dumped into a common pit. The head remained on display until 1685. It was not buried, however, until 1960.
Oddly enough, Cromwell had already been dead for two years, having expired from malaria and a kidney infection in September 1658. Nearly a decade before his own death, Cromwell had successfully urged Parliament to execute Charles I for treason, an execution that was carried out in public on 30 January 1649. Cromwell famously described the beheading of Charles I as a “cruel necessity.” When the royalists recaptured power in 1660, Cromwell was convicted posthumously of the same crime for which Charles had been dispossessed of his own head. John Bradshaw, who had presided over the trial of the dead king, was drawn and quartered along with Cromwell; Parliamentary generals Henry Ireton and Thomas Pride were handled in more or less the same fashion.

All three happened to be dead as well.

"Bloody Sunday" photo credit

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Monday, January 29, 2007

January 29

President Andrew Jackson, whose legend often presents him as a friend of the commoner, called upon federal troops to suppress a labor uprising on this date in 1834 -- the first and certainly not the last time such powers would be invoked by an American president. The conflict, which broke out along the sixth section of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, involved rival groups of Irish workers near Williamsport, Maryland. After a laborer named John Irons was beaten to death on January 16, a week of clashes between “the Corkonians” and “the Longford men” resulted in dozens killed and scores wounded in clashes that at times involved hundreds of workers. Construction along the B&O was suspended, and the Maryland legislature appealed to President Jackson to intervene.

As it turns out, the president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was a close friend of Jackson’s. Indeed, John H. Eaton was a former Senator from Tennessee and had served two years as Jackson’s Secretary of War; he was quite open about his view that American troops should remain in his company’s service for months to come. After Jackson ordered two companies of troops to suppress the disturbances on January 29, Eaton wrote a letter to his friend and wondered if the soldiers might stick around to coerce the strikers into obedience. They did. In February 1835, a section of B&O workers struck for higher wages. As Niles’ Weekly Register reported, mounted troops and riflement “happily reduced the rioters to order, and drove them away.”


Novelist, ecologist, and anarchist Edward Abbey was born on this day in 1927. Abbey died in 1989, a little over a week after George Herbert Walker Bush was inaugurated as 41st president of the US. Abbey once wrote that “Recorded history is largely an account of the crimes & disasters committed by banal little men at the levers of imperial machines.”

On what would have been Abbey’s 75th birthday, the 43rd President of the US -- also named George Bush -- declared Iraq, Iran and North Korea to be an “axis of evil.” As The Decider explained, “I will not wait on events while dangers gather. I will not stand by as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons.”

Twenty-eight years ago today, a 16-year-old girl named Brenda Ann Spencer shot eight children and three adults -- two of whom died -- at Grover Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego. Asked after her arrest to explain her motive, Spencer merely told police that she didn’t like Mondays. The Boomtown Rats wrote a song about Spencer. Titled "I Don't Like Mondays," it was released nine months after the shooting.

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Saturday, January 27, 2007

January 27

Today is international Holocaust Remembrance Day, marking the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz camp by troops from the Soviet First Army in 1945. When the Soviet forces arrived that day, they found a mere 7000 prisoners remaining at the three Auschwitz facilities. Most of those who remained were desperately ill and dying. The rest of the camp -- as many as 60,000 people -- had been evacuated on January 18, forced to march west in unfathomably cold weather to the city of Wodzislaw. A quarter of the marchers died along the route, shot by SS soldiers for falling behind or collapsing from exhaustion in the snow.

When Soviet troops entered Auschwitz, an 18-year old Hungarian Jew named Bart Stern was among the first survivors they found. Unlike most of his comrades, Stern was healthy, having avoided the death march by hiding out from German troops in a large bread bin. Then -- when the Polish and Ukrainian prisoners in his old barracks refused to let him back in -- Stern spent his nights hiding in one of the crematoria, surrounded by dead bodies, until January 27.

Otto Frank, the father of the famous diarist Anne, was also among those who remained at Auschwitz on that day. He was the only member of his family to survive. Since its construction in 1940, the Auschwitz facility had received roughly 1.3 million prisoners, 90% of whom had been killed.

Six years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the United States tested a 1-kiloton, air-delivered atomic weapon at Frenchman Flats. IT the first atmospheric nuclear test conducted at the Nevada Test Site. Over the next decade, several dozen additional atmospheric tests were carried out in Nevada, with the largest -- a 188-kiloton shot -- taking place in 1958, a year in which the US detonated an average of one nuclear blast for every week of the year.

Photo from Reuters

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Friday, January 26, 2007

January 26

Today is “Australia Day," which celebrates the 1788 arrival of eleven ships, led by Captain Arthur Philip, at Port Jackson in New South Wales. The eleven ships brought with them nearly 1400 people, over half of whom were convicts serving terms of exile for property crimes. Thirty-three of the convicted travelers on the First Fleet had received their sentences for swiping goods valued at a single shilling -- this included George Barland, who was loaded on to the Scarborough and transported on a seven-year sentence for stealing a coat. John Hatch, traveling on the Alexander stole wheat. Thirty-one passengers had stolen handkerchiefs while Elizabeth Bird, assigned to the Lady Penrhyn, made off with someone else's sheep. John Harris, a wax chandler from London, was caught with silver spoons valued at 60 shillings; initially sentenced to hang, Harris was instead offered a lifetime sentence in Australia.

The greatest property crime of all, however, was perpetrated by the British crown, which eventually claimed the whole of the continent. In recognition of this loss, Australia’s aboriginal population acknowledges today instead as “Invasion Day” or “Survival Day.”


Catholics observe the Feast of St. Polycarp of Smyrna on January 26, though he actually met his gruesome and triumphant end in late February sometime between a.d. 155-167. A gifted teacher and early Christian bishop, Polycarp was put to death at the age of 86 or 87 for refusing to deny his faith. His execution turned into something of a fiasco, according to the only surviving account. After being bound to a stake “like a distinguished ram,” Polycarp was miraculously shielded from the flames, at least if the anonymous Smyrnaean author is to be trusted.
For the fire, shaping itself into the form of an arch, like the sail of a ship when filled with the wind, encompassed as by a circle the body of the martyr. And he appeared within not like flesh which is burnt, but as bread that is baked, or as gold and silver glowing in a furnace. Moreover, we perceived such a sweet odour [coming from the pile], as if frankincense or some such precious spices had been smoking there.

At length, when those wicked men perceived that his body could not be consumed by the fire, they commanded an executioner to go near and pierce him through with a dagger. And on his doing this, there came forth a dove, and a great quantity of blood, so that the fire was extinguished . . . .
After he was dead, a centurian rekindled the fire and roasted Polycarp’s carcass. His bones were then gathered and taken away by his followers. No further mention is made of the dove that had evidently roosted inside him.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

January 25

Described by the British Foreign Office as a "splendid type and a good football player," Idi Amin Dada took control of Uganda on this date in 1971. While prime minister Milton Obote was away at a summit of prime ministers in Singapore, Amin -- commander of the Ugandan military -- seized power in a coup and declared himself "His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular."

Buoyed by his self-awarded title, Idi Amin promptly organized death squads to eliminate the remnant supporters of the Obote government. Known by such mundane names as the "Public Safety Unit" and "Bureau of State Research," Amin's goons paid special attention to the Lango and Acholi tribes. Six weeks after deposing Obote, thirty-two Lango and Acholi army officers were blown up in a prison cell in the Ugandan capital of Kampala; by the time his first year in power came to an end, as many as 3000 officers had been executed. Over the course of his eight-year rule, Amin oversaw the deaths of anywhere from 80,000 to 300,000 people. Based on accounts from exiled groups, Amnesty International placed the actual figure at nearly half a million dead.

Amin's security forces even killed one of his wives, cutting her body into small chunks before stitching it back together.

Amin's rivalries extended beyond the Ugandan borders. During his tenure in office, he threatened war with Kenya and the Sudan on numerous occasions and ordered the invasion of Tanzania in October 1978. When Tanzanian forces retaliated and, with the help of Ugandan exiles, entered Kampala in April 1979, Imin fled the country. After a brief stay in Libya as the guest of Colonel Khadafi, Amin moved to Saudi Arabia, where he lived until his death in 2003.

On the occasion of Amin's death, the British journalist Patrick Keatley wrote that "Amin brought bloody tragedy and economic ruin to his country, during a selfish life that had no redeeming qualities."

Cartoon by Edmund Valtman


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

January 24

If the written accounts of Caligula's life are to be believed, his assassination on this date in anno domini 41 passed without significant mourning. The fourth of the so-called "twelve Caesars," Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus earned the nickname "Caligula" -- meaning "little boot" -- as a young boy, after the miniature soldier's uniform in which his father used to dress him. Shortly after assuming the title of Emperor in the year 37, Caligula was striken by a still-undetermined affliction and emerged from his convalescence an unparalleled monster. His reputation as a moral degenerate, already secured by the time he ascended to office, only magnified over the next four years. The Roman biographer Suetonius later described Caligula as a thin-skinned, deranged sadist. He lay in incest with his sisters; he fed criminals to the lions when raw beef was scarce; he closed the granaries merely to watch his people starve a bit. He drank pearls dissolved in vinegar and had gold cast in the shape of bread loaves. He is reported to have wished that "the Roman people had but a single neck," the better to throttle his subjects all at once.

In The Lives of the Caesars, the chapter devoted to Caligula is more or less a stomach-turning recitation of his crimes against nature and humanity. As Suetonius writes,
Many men of honourable rank were first disfigured with the marks of branding-irons and then condemned to the mines, to work at building roads, or to be thrown to the wild beasts; or else he shut them up in cages on all fours, like animals, or had them sawn asunder. Not all these punishments were for serious offences, but merely for criticising one of his shows, or for never having sworn by his Genius. He forced parents to attend the executions of their sons . . . . He had the manager of his gladiatorial shows and beast-baitings beaten with chains in his presence for several successive days, and would not kill him until he was disgusted at the stench of his putrefied brain. He burned a writer of Atellan farces alive in the middle of the arena of the amphitheatre, because of a humorous line of double meaning. When a Roman knight on being thrown to the wild beasts loudly protested his innocence, he took him out, cut off his tongue, and put him back again.
Eventually, Caligula declared himself to be a god. After less than four years of rule, Caligula was stabbed to death by Cassius Chaerea and a mob of fellow guardsmen; according to several accounts, the assassination -- though planned in advance -- was instigated when Caligula insulted Chaerea's wounded penis one too many times.

As the Roman historian Cassius Dio later quipped, in death Caligula "learned by actual experience that he was not a god."


January 23


In the early morning light of 23 January 1870, calvalrymen from the 2nd US Regiment attacked an encampment of South Piegan Indians along the Marias River in northern Montana. The Blackfoot Confederacy -- which included two tribes of Piegan in Canada and Montana -- had been ensnared in a low-intensity confict with the United States for a number of years, although not all bands were regarded as hostile to the US. Indeed, one of the "friendly" bands was led by Running Horse, whose people were massacred 137 years ago today.

Led by Major Eugene Baker, the American troops acted that day on orders from General Philip Sheridan, who encouraged Baker to use his own discretion in punishing the Piegan for the murder of a white trader and his family several months prior to the attack. Although it was known that "hostiles" were located downstream under the leadership of Mountain Chief, Baker was also given to understand that the ambush should be considered a preemptive strike, since -- so the logic went -- anyone killed would have posed a threat to white interests anyway. With temperatures dropping to a staggering 40 degrees below zero, Baker and his officers allegedly steeled themselves with strong drink during the night before the attack, to the point that by morning Baker was too drunk to issue orders, as several witnesses later attested.

Drunk or not, the cavalrymen of F Company descended upon the Piegan encampment and tore it to shreds. With most of the Piegan men away on a hunt, the camp was occupied almost entirely by women, children and the elderly, nearly 200 of whom perished in the unprovoked attack. Half-inch Springfield rifle shells killed many as they fled the confusion; others suffocated in their own tents, which caught fire and collapsed. A Piegan named Spear Woman -- Heavy Runner's daughter -- offered her account in the Billings Gazette in 1932:
[Just at dawn] we were aroused by barking dogs. Then someone came with word for my father, Heavy Runner, that the soldiers were coming. All was excitement and fright in the camp. But Heavy Runner told everyone to be quiet, that there was nothing to fear. He said he would show the whites his name paper.'

He walked quietly toward the soldiers with his hands uplifted. In one of them was the paper which he had been told was a pledge of safety, held where it could be seen. A shot pierced his heart and he fell, clutching the paper to his breast.

The soldiers then began firing at everyone. Everywhere was confusion, everyone looked for cover. All the warriors and able-bodied men had left some days before on a hunt; only some old and sick men were there.,

I rushed into another tent where there were some sick and dying people. I hid under a back rest on one of the beds. While there, I saw a knife cut a hole in the teepee and then a soldier thrust himself through the opening. He fired at every moving body. When he figured no one was alive, he left. I was small and quiet, so he didn't notice me.
In the end, the US Army counted 173 dead and 300 Piegan horses stolen; F Company lost a single unfortunate soldier. More than a hundred other Piegan were captured and released with no food, supplies or horses -- all of which were pilfered or burnt by Baker's men. Many of the survivors died during a frigid, 90-mile walk to Ft. Benton.

Although Major Baker did not report the encounter until nearly two weeks had passed, his ruthless attack on a defenseless camp posed no more than a temporary inconvenience to his career. General Sheridan -- who himself oversaw similar atrocities in the Red River, Black Hills and Ute Wars -- blocked any investigation of the Baker Massacre, noting that he "preferred to believe" his officers' highly dubious accounts.

A ferocious alcoholic, Major Eugene Baker expired from cirrhosis of the liver in 1885.

Photo of massacre site from Drex Brooks


Monday, January 22, 2007

January 22

As the global coffee market plummeted in late 1931 and early 1932, the Great Depression indirectly generated one of the worst atrocities in Central American history. In January 1932, security forces from the right-wing government of El Salvador perpetrated la Matanza ("The Massacre") in which tens of thousands of indigenous peasants were systematically annihilated. In the aftermath of la Matanza, the language and culture of El Salvador's indigenous people was severely compromised.

In the decades prior to 1932, the Pipil -- the indigienous population of El Salvador-- had been uprooted from their traditional lands to make room for coffee plantations. As was customary throughout Latin America, a handful of privileged families owned nearly all of the nation's wealth. When a military junta led by the fascist admirer General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez toppled the populist (and democratically elected) Arturo Araujo in December 1931, ordinary Salvadorans were enraged.

After weeks of strikes, fighting began on January 22 as Socorro Rojo, a communist social service organization based in the cities, joined with other ladino and indigenous groups in attacking a government garrison, cutting supply lines and taking over several towns in the rural, western regions of the country between Sonsonate and Santa Ana. Three days later, the government launched a counter-offensive that easily overwhelmed the insurgents, who were could array little more than machetes and knives against the formidable weaponry of the state. The uprising was crushed within the week, but the reprisals continued as the Salvadoran National Guard sought not merely to dismantle the revolt but to destroy as well the country's indigenous population. In some towns and villages, every male over the age of 12 was executed; others were shot merely for donning traditional indigenous dress or for speaking nahuat, the language of the Pipil. Estimates of the dead range from 10,000 to nearly 40,000, although the exact figures will probably never be determined.

Among the dead was the Socorro Rojo leader Augustin Farabundo Marti Rodriguez, who became one of the century's great martyrs for Central and South American leftists. Indeed, la Matanza continued to shape Salvadoran politics and culture for the rest of the century, exerting an especially debilitating effect on the Pipil. Today, fewer than 200 speakers of nahuat are left; 99 percent of El Salvador's Indian population remains impoverished.

General Martinez was himself ousted by a coup in 1944; two decades later, he was assassinated in Honduras. By his own standards, Martinez's death need not have been mourned. "It is a greater crime to kill an ant than a man," he once explained, "for when a man dies he becomes reincarnated, while an ant dies forever."


Today also marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Robert Budd Dwyer, State Treasurer for Pennsylvania from 1980 until 22 January 1987, when Dwyer blew his head off during a press conference. At the time, Dwyer was facing a possible 55-year jail sentence for receiving a $300,000 kickback on a state contract; protesting his innocence, he had refused an earlier plea bagrain offer that would have sent him to the pokey for a comparatively short five-year sentence. After his conviction, the 47-year-old Dwyer grew understandably despondent over the possibility that he might someday die in prison. Calling a late morning press conference to "update" reporters on "the situation," Dwyer read a long, rambling statement that reiterated his innocence. He vowed, moreover, not to spend the remainder of his days in "an American gulag."

Dwyer thanked his supporters, expressed gratitude for his wife and children, then pulled a .357 magnum revolver from a manila envelope. Warning everyone to "stay away" because, "this thing might hurt someone," Budd Dwyer dutifully took his place in the macabre folklore of American politics. Television stations in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia aired complete footage of the suicide during their mid-day broadcasts. As a result, thousands of young children -- home from school thanks to a major snowstorm -- watched the State Treasurer trepanate himself with a single shot.

Over the past two decades, Budd Dwyer has become something of a fixture in the world of sub-popular music. Odes to Dwyer have been recorded by such bands as Mr. Yukk and Poison Control; Ion Dissonance; Tijiuana Car Wash; and Camp Kill Yourself. More well-known artists such as Marilyn Manson, Filter, Ministry and Faith No More have also given Budd Dwyer the everlasting life that was apparently denied to the Salvadoran General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez.

Today's podcast


Sunday, January 21, 2007

Brief Audio Interruption

Because I'm not wasting nearly enough time on this blog, I've decided to make a stab at podcasting as well. I'm trying to work out the kinks as far as posting these to iTunes and Podcast Alley, but for the time being you can listen to the first episode of "The Worst Day Ever: A Podcast for Misanthropes" here. It's a lot like the stuff you read here, only with more stupid historical details and awkward verbal tics.

Assuming I manage to upload more than one of these in my lifetime, you can also subscribe to the podcast feed by clicking this little icon and plugging it into iTunes (or whatever audio player you use):

Other January Podcasts:

January 22

January 21

Today is the Feast of St. Agnes, when Roman Catholics honor the most important of the virgin martyrs. According to legend, Agnes of Rome, a young Christian girl twelve or thirteen years of age, was executed on this date sometime in the third or fourth century anno domini. Agnes' transgression, evidently, was to refuse an offer of marriage from the son of a Roman prefect; when she refused, the prefect ordered her to be raped, tortured and burnt at the stake. In one account by the fourth-century Roman Catholic poet and hymnist Aurelius Prudentius Clemens, one of her would-be violators was stricken blind and comatose when he cast a lewd eye upon her. Thus, while her virginity was spared, Agnes' life was not. At her execution, the wood surrounding her body failed to ignite. According to the fourth-century account by St. Ambrose -- included in his three-part meditation de virginis ("Concerning Virgins") -- Agnes greeted her death without hesitation:
She stood, she prayed, she bent down her neck. You could see the executioner tremble, as though he himself had been condemned, and his right hand shake, his face grow pale, as he feared the peril of another, while the maiden feared not for her own. You have then in one victim a twofold martyrdom, of modesty and of religion. She both remained a virgin and she obtained martyrdom.
Although the conventional accounts of her execution are ghastly, little is actually known of Agnes' life aside from its brevity. Traditionally, her execution was believed to have occurred during the Diocletian persecutions, sometime around the year 304 or 305; other evidence, however, suggests that her martyrdom may have occurred some years before during the reign of Gaius Decius, a half century or more prior to Diocletian. Regardless of her date of death, Agnes came to be known as the patron saint of young girls. He body was placed in sepulchre, and during the reign of Constantine St. Agnes was honored with a basilica constructed around her final resting place. She remains there to this day.


A man of considerably less sanctity than Agnes, Howard Unruh, turns 86 today in the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital. He has been there since 1949, when the unemployed World War II tank soldier shot up his pleasant Camden, New Jersey neighborhood on September 6 of that year. Unruh believed his neighbors were talking about him behind his back, and he soon began to compile a hit list of local enemies. When someone stole a new gate he had installed at his mother's house -- where he still lived -- Unruh at last snapped and decided to shoot everyone on his roster. He carried out his plan the next morning after a breakfast of fried eggs, although he did not exactly stick to the list. In twelve minutes, he managed to shoot 26 people, half of whom died. And so it was that Howard Unruh became the first single-episode mass murderer in United States history.

"I'm no psycho," he told an investigator. "I have a good mind. I'd have killed a thousand if I had bullets enough."

Saturday, January 20, 2007

January 20

On this date in 2001, George Walker Bush formally ascended to the office of President of the United States. In that day's inaugural address, speechwriter Michael Gerson -- addressing the nation via the new president -- vowed that President Bush would "live and lead by these principles: to advance my convictions with civility, to pursue the public interest with courage, to speak for greater justice and compassion, to call for responsibility and try to live it as well.

"In all these ways," Bush continued, "I will bring the values of our history to the care of our times."

He spoke these words on the 116th anniversary of the patenting of a "roller coasting structure" by L.A. Thompson.


Today also marks the 65th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference, held at a stately suburban villa just outside Berlin on 20 January 1942. There, more than a dozen officials of the Third Reich met to coordinate their efforts toward a "final solution" to the Jewish presence in German-occupied lands. The conference came at the request of Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, who asked Richard Heydrich, chief of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (the Reich Main Security Office), to develop a preliminary outline for such a project. The RSHA was a subdivision of the SS charged with the vague and monumental responsibility of waging war against "enemies of the Reich" -- a category that expanded to include Jews, gypsies, and other undesirable souls throughout German lands. Heydrich would have understood that such a request from Goering also carried the approval of Hitler himself, whose position on the existence of the Jews was widely known.

According to the minutes of the meeting, which were dutifully kept by Adolf Eichmann, Heydrich spoke for nearly an hour on the subject of Germany's previous efforts to encourage the "emigration" its Jewish population. Successful as those projects may have been, Heydrich warned, the inevitable extension of German authority eastward into Slavic lands would require fresh thinking on the "Jewish question." Listing the Jewish populations of countries throughout Europe -- including nations such as England, Ireland and Spain -- Heydrich estimated that 11 million people would have to be "evacuated" to the east, where that would be worked to death or otherwise liquidated. As Heydrich explained at Wannsee,
Under proper guidance, in the course of the final solution the Jews are to be allocated for appropriate labor in the East. Able-bodied Jews, separated according to sex, will be taken in large work columns to these areas for work on roads, in the course of which action doubtless a large portion will be eliminated by natural causes.

The possible final remnant will, since it will undoubtedly consist of the most resistant portion, have to be treated accordingly, because it is the product of natural selection and would, if released, act as the seed of a new Jewish revival (see the experience of history.)
Heydrich himself would be assassinated in June 1942, but the preliminary efforts of the Wannsee Conference would evolve rapidly and monstrously over the next three years.

Along with millions of Jews, communists, freemasons, Roma and other ethnic minorities, nearly all the participants in the Wannsee Conference would themselves perish in the next six years. Three would be executed for their crimes; several died in the course of the war itself; several died of natural causes; and one of the participants actually finished the war in Sachsenhausen, one of the concentration camps that administered the Final Solution. That official, whose improbable name was Martin Luther, died shortly after the Soviets liberated the camp.

Gerhard Klopfer, the last surviving participant at the Wannsee Conference, died on 28 January 1987.

Friday, January 19, 2007

January 19

On 16 January 1969, nearly five months after the Soviet Union rolled into Czechoslovakia -- asphyxiating the "Prague Spring," a nonviolent movement to liberalize the country's economy and social order -- a 20-year-old student named Jan Palach doused himself with gasoline on the steps of the National Museum, which looked down over Wenceslas Square in Prague. After lighting himself on fire, he dashed across an intersection and was doused with coal by a transportation worker. Palach suffered third-degree burns over 85 percent of his body and was rushed to a nearby burn clinic at Vinohrady Hospital, where he lived several days before expiring at last on 19 January 1969.

Jaroslava Moserova, a doctor who later served in the Czech parliament, attended to Palach during those three days and remembered him in an interview with Radio Prague that was conducted in January 2006, two months before her own death.
Already, as the nurses told me, already when he was in the elevator and being taken up to the intensive care unit, he kept telling the nurses, 'Please try to make them understand. Please tell people why I did it.' When people say that he did it because of the invasion of the Warsaw Pact armies, that's not really so. He did it because of the demoralization that was setting in. He was a young man, he had some hopes in the Dubcek Prague Spring, he had some illusions that it might even work, and he saw, as we all saw, so many people of talent and courage suddenly emerge from nowhere during the Prague Spring. And then so many of these people disclaimed the statements they made during the Prague Spring, so many of them gave in and sold their souls. That was what he couldn't bear, what he wanted to stop. He wanted to do something that couldn't be played down, that couldn't be kept secret, that would necessarily attract public attention, and he really wanted to shake the conscience of the nation.
Nearly half a million people observed his funeral procession less than a week later. Using metal truncheons and tear gas, police beat back demonstrators at Wenceslas Statue, where they had gathered to mourn Palach by lighting candles and placing wreaths at the statue's feet. In mid-February another "human torch," 18-year-old Jan Zajic, duplicated Palach's act.

Buried at Olsany cemetary, Palach served as an emblem of Czech resistance and his grave became a popular site of pilgrimage and tribute until 1973, when his body was exhumed and cremated on the orders of the government. An elderly woman was buried in his place. In 1990, after the fall of the communist government of Czechoslovakia, Palach's ashes were returned to Prague and interred once again at Olsany cemetery.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

January 17

Sixteen years ago tonight, the United States led a coalition of nations into war to liberate a tiny, undemocratic emirate from the temporary clutches of a somewhat larger, undemocratic dictatorship located along its northern border. By the end of the conflict little more than a month later, more than 100,000 Iraqis had been killed -- adding incrementally to the hundreds of thousands who had perished in their ill-advised eight-year war with Iran -- and the nation's electical grid, water treatment systems, sewers, bridges, railroads, dams and hospitals had been obliterated, virtually assuring the deaths of hundreds of thousands more in the coming decade. In the wake of the conflict, untold thousands of tons of depleted uranium dust remained to contaminate the air, water and soil for the roughly the next four billion years. By 2001, rates of leukemia in Basra -- an area of Southern Iraq heavily targeted with DU weapons as Saddam Hussein's army retreated from Kuwait -- had risen nearly 400%, while birth defects had increased to more than six times their rate from 1990.

After the formal cessation of hostilities on 28 February 1991, more than 400,000 people were expelled from Kuwait, mostly Palestinians on whose labor the economy of the emirate had come to rely; millions of Kurds, fearing the predictable reprisals from the government of Saddam Hussein, fled into Turkey and Iran from northern Iraq; and thousands of Shi'as in southern Iraq were relentlessly slaughtered by their government, many of them shot from helecopters manufactured in and purchased from the United States.

On the night the Gulf War began, it happened to be the 30th anniversary of Dwight David Eisenhower's farewell address to the nation. In that televised speech, he famously warned that "we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex . . . . Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together."

At the end of the war, President George Herbert Walker Bush jovially remarked that "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all," adding that the United States had at last fought a war without "one hand tied behind [its] back."

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

January 16

Ivan IV Vasilyevich -- otherwise known as Ivan Grozny or "Ivan the Terrible" -- formally assumed the title of tsar on this date in 1547. The 17-year-old had technically become Russia's ruler at the age of three when his father Ivan III died, but a series of regents conducted the nation's affairs until the young Vasilyevich asserted his authority over the boyars, the Slavic feudal aristocracy. During the period of his regency, Ivan was often beaten and molested by the two families of boyars -- the Shuiskys and Belskys -- who fought one another for the power to rule in his stead. By his teenage years, Ivan was known as a prolific drinker and a torturer of small animals. In 1543, Ivan ordered the arrest of one of the boyars, a prince named Andrew Shuisky who was then, according to legend, tossed into a pit with starving dogs. Ivan was a renowned rapist and an avid reader of books about history and religion. He beat up farmers and purged his sins while banging his head against the altar. As a result of his bizarre confessional style, he developed a callus on his forehead.

After assuming the title of Russia's first tsar, Ivan's early years were marked by impressive degrees modernization and territorial consolidation; during his nearly 40 years in power, Russia's legal code was revised and the printing press was introduced, and the country's first standing army was developed, in part to check the expansion of nomadic tribes from Asia. Less happily for the fate of millions, Tsar Ivan also restricted the movement of peasants, setting into motion a process of that would virtually enslave the propertyless classes of Russia. From 1558 to the early 1580s, the Livonian War -- which pitted Russia against Sweden, Poland, Denmark and Lithuania -- exacted a heavy toll upon the Russian people as Ivan waged a reckless and ultimately unsuccessful campaign to control Greater Livonia (modern day Estonia and Latvia). Famine and disease killed perhaps hundreds of thousands during the 1570s, while the Tsar's thuggish Oprichniki -- a black-robed regional security force that oversaw much of northeastern Russia -- massacred thousands of people in Novgorod, where the archbishop was sewn into a bearskin and hunted by a pack of hounds. The town of Pskov was offered similar treatment, though the fate of their clergy is unclear.

Near the end of his life, Ivan the Terrible beat his pregnant daughter-in-law for wearing what he regarded as provocative clothing; she subsequently miscarried. When his son (also named Ivan) confronted the Tsar over the beating, he was bludgeoned to death with a metal rod. The elder Ivan, wracked with grief and remorse, banged his head repeatedly on his son's coffin and foamed at the mouth like a horse, according to eye-witnesses.

Tsar Ivan himself eventually succumbed during a friendly chess match in 1584, quite likely the victim of poisoning by mercury, which he was ingesting to offset the effects of tertiary syphilis.

Monday, January 15, 2007

January 15

The Spanish conquistador Vasco Nunez de Balboa was beheaded with an axe 488 years ago, a punishment he received for allegedly seeking to usurp the power of the Pedrarias Davila, who was Balboa's successor as Governor of Veragua. Pedrarias was also his father-in-law, although the two men shared few good feelings toward one another. Among his other accomplishments, Balboa founded Santa Maria la Antigua del Darien, the first permanent Spanish settlement on the mainland of the Americas, located in present day Panama; more famously, Balboa is credited with being the first European to reach the Pacific Ocean -- which he named the "South Ocean" -- in 1513.

Illiterate and uneducated, Balboa was a relentless pursuer of gold and slaves. Like most of his kind, Balboa believed his governorship had been marked by a special humanitarian vision, although he was known to deal with recalcitrant tribes in all the customary, grotesque ways. When members of a tribe under his authority were accused of practicing "male love," he ordered them to be torn apart by dogs. Balboa's arrest, interestingly enough, was carried out by his colleague Francisco Pizarro, another illiterate who would later subdue the Incan Empire. After a swift trial, the former governor and a quartet of his friends were decapitated in the town of Acla, which means "bones of men" in one of the region's indigenous languages.


Exactly four centuries after Balboa's execution, a 50-foot tall vat of molasses collapsed in the North End of Boston, sending a tidal wave of syrup into the streets. More than two million gallons of dark brown sweetness rushed forth at 35 miles per hour, carrying a force of 2 tons per square foot. The Boston Post, mixing several culinary metaphors, described the horrific scene the next day:
Like eggshells it crushed the buildings of the North End yard of the city's paving division… To the north it swirled and wiped out practically all of Boston's only electric freight terminal. Big steel trolley freight cars were crushed as if eggshells, and their piled-up cargo of boxes and merchandise minced like so much sandwich meat.
In the wave of molasses and the vacuum created in its wake, a section of Boston's elevated train track was destroyed and a train car thrown into the air; several buildings were wrecked. A firefighter named George Leahy was trapped underneath the firehouse -- although he managed to keep his head above the molasses for several hourse, he eventually lost consciousness and drowned. In the end 21 people perished, crushed or asphyxiated by the most common form of sweetener in the United States at the time. Several of the bodies were too battered and glazed to be properly identified. Nearly 200 other Bostonians were injured in the catastrophe. Of the 20 horses who died in the molasses wave, several had to be shot because they could not be extracted from the goo.

United States Industrial Alcohol, the company that owned the faulty vat, tried to blame the accident on anarchist saboteurs but eventually settled lawsuits totaling more than $600,000.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

January 14

On 14 January 1981, Jimmy Carter delivered his farewell address to a nation that had recently evicted him from office. Beset by the Iranian hostage crisis, an economy groaning under the weight of deindustrialization, and the revival of Soviet expansionism in Afghanistan, Carter was the fifth consecutive American president to leave office under less than auspicious circumstances. Unlike John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter had survived his term; unlike Richard Nixon, he did not leave office as a disgraced, drunken wreck. But there was little doubt on the night of January 14 that Carter was concluding a failed presidency marked by indecision, divisiveness, and bad sweaters.

Still, Carter remained upbeat, congratulating the members of his administration for their service and thanking Americans for their kindness and support over the previous four years. Turning from his own departure to the question of national "destiny," Carter reminded his fellow citizens of their obligations to protect universal human rights. As the president explained,
America did not invent human rights. In a very real sense, it's the other way around. Human rights invented America. Ours was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded explicitly on such an idea. Our social and political progress has been based on one fundamental principle: the value and importance of the individual. The fundamental force that unites us is not kinship or place of origin or religious preference. The love of liberty is the common blood that flows in our American veins.

The battle for human rights, at home and abroad, is far from over. We should never be surprised nor discouraged, because the impact of our efforts has had and will always have varied results. Rather, we should take pride that the ideals which gave birth to our Nation still inspire the hopes of oppressed people around the world. We have no cause for self-righteousness or complacency, but we have every reason to persevere, both within our own country and beyond our borders.
Earlier that day, Jimmy Carter authorized the release of $5 million in "non-lethal" aid to the right-wing junta that ruled El Salvador -- funds that doubled four days later, just prior to Carter's exit from Washington, DC. By year's end, Ronald Reagan's administration had announced its commitment to fighting "communism" in Central America. One of its principle aims was to offer unhindered support the Salvadoran government, whose death squads had already begun thinning the population in a civil war that would cost tens of thousands of people their lives by decade's end.


Eighteen years before James Earl Carter bade the nation farewell, George Corley Wallace announced his triumphant arrival into the Alabama governor's office in Montgomery. In a loathsome ode to herrenvolk democracy, Wallace stoked the fires of white resentment against the modest gains of the civil rights movement, which had entered perhaps its most critical year to date:
Today I have stood, where once Jefferson Davis stood, and took an oath to my people. It is very appropriate then that from this Cradle of the Confederacy, this very Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland, that today we sound the drum for freedom as have our generations of forebears before us done, time and time again through history. Let us rise to the call of freedom-loving blood that is in us and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South. In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny . . . and I say . . . segregation today . . . segregation tomorrow . . . segregation forever. . . .

Hear me, Southerners! You sons and daughters who have moved north and west throughout this nation . . . . we call on you from your native soil to join with us in national support and vote . . and we know . . . wherever you are . . away from the hearths of the Southland . . . that you will respond, for though you may live in the fartherest reaches of this vast country . . . . your heart has never left Dixieland.

And you native sons and daughters of old New England's rock-ribbed patriotism . . . and you sturdy natives of the great Mid-West . . and you descendants of the far West flaming spirit of pioneer freedom . . we invite you to come and be with us . . for you are of the Southern spirit . . and the Southern philosophy . . . you are Southerners too and brothers with us in our fight.
By the end of 1963, the March on Washington would take place; police officers in Birmingham would unleash German shepherds and fire hoses against unarmed men, women, and children; four young girls would be obliterated in a church bombing in that same city; Medgar Evers would be gunned down outside his home in Jackson, Mississippi; and John Kennedy -- who watched all of this with mounting dismay -- would have his brains scattered across the seats of a limousine in Dallas.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

January 13

Nearly 1500 years ago, the city of Constantinople was virtually destroyed in five days of ferocious rioting that killed as many as 30,000 people and left half the city in cinders. The riots began on 13 January 532 at the Hippodrome, where two racing teams -- the Blues and the Greens, each of whom was allied with rival political factions and criminal organizations -- set aside their traditional animosities and united in opposition to the Emperor Justinian. Three days prior to the unrest, a botched execution had allowed two condemned men (one from each faction) to escape the hangman's noose; after the two fortunate men had been spirited away by monks to the church of St. Laurentius, leaders of the Blue and Green factions cried angrily for mercy they did not actually believe would be forthcoming. Resentful as well of Justinian's decision to impose new taxes, the grumbling politicos were joined by throngs of impoverished rural-dwellers who had flooded Constantinople, hoping to beg relief from the onerous financial burdens created by the emperor.

Rallying to the cry of nika ("conquer"), the furious Byzantines spilled from the Hippodrome on January 13 and surged toward the Praetorium, the legal center of the city. There, they smashed and burned the prison, freeing scores of criminals; elated with their conquest, the revelers moved on to the Augusteum, the massive square in front of the Hagia Sophia, where they set fire to several buildings. My morning, the city had erupted into scattered fighting and incendiarism. Over the next several days, hundreds of people were killed in the violence, and Justinian's political opponents seized the opportunity to lead an attempted coup against the unpopular emperor. Believing Justinian had fled the city, Hypatius -- nephew of the former emperor Anastasius -- assumed his place at the Hippodrome and briefly enjoyed the adulation of tens of thousands of well-wishers. Justinian's wife Theodora, however, famously persuaded her husband to remain in the city and reclaim his rightful power. Three of his generals sealed off the giant stadium and slaughtered its inhabitants. Hypatius and his brother Pompeius were promptly executed and cast into the sea.

Friday, January 12, 2007

January 12

By grotesque coincidence, two of the central actors in the German Third Reich squirmed loose into the world on 12 January 1893 -- the 400th anniversary of the expulsion of Sicily's entire Jewish population. Reichsmarschall Herman Goering -- a Bavarian who eventually rose to be Hitler's second in command during World War II -- and the Estonian racial theorist Albert Rosenberg shared fifty-three birthdays on this earth, although Rosenberg managed to outlive Goering by a single day.

As it happened, both were scheduled for execution by hanging on 16 October 1946, as set forth by the judgments of the Nuremberg court. Goering, however, somehow came into possession of a small dose of potassium cyanide, which he ingested the night before his date with the gallows. Abandoned by the man with whom he shared a birthday, Rosenberg nevertheless had plenty of company in his last moments and may not have missed Goering at all. Instead, he ascended the scaffold with Hans Frank (Governor-General of occupied Poland), Wilhelm Frick (Interior Minister), Alfred Jodi (chief of the armed forces operational staff), Ernst Kaltenbrunner (head of the Gestapo), Wilhelm Keitel (chief of staff for the armed forces high command), Joachim von Ribbentrop (foreign minister), Julius Streicher (anti-Semitic editor and Reich propagandist), Arthur Seyss-Inquart (who oversaw the deportation of Dutch Jews), and Fritz Sauckel (whose labor bureau forcibly conscripted millions of unfree workers to advance the cause of the German people). By the time his former colleagues' necks snapped at the end of a rope, Herman Goering had been dead of a massive cardiac arrest for hours.

Far from Nuremberg on the southern cape of Africa, Pieter Willem Botha -- a racist Afrikaner who had grown disillusioned with the Nazis he once openly admired -- turned 30 years old that day. A lawyer by training, Botha was only two years away from entering the South African parliament as a representative from the town of George. In 1978, Botha assumed the title of Prime Minister, defending the apartheid system with a noxious zeal that was at times described as "reformist" and "pragmatic."

In an almost completely unrelated matter, January 12 also happens to be the birthday of Rush Hudson Limbaugh III. Known at earlier points in his radio career by the quasi-porn star names Rusty Sharpe and Jeff Christie, Limbaugh roared ass-backward into the embittered, revanchist ideological climate of the early 1990s. His derisive style made him a star, though his wealth was never enough to secure his true heart's desire -- enough Oxycontin and Vicodin to keep him in a perpetual state of drooling self-satisfaction. Long an advocate for "family values," Limbaugh has wheezed his way through a trio of failed marriages, none of which brought forth the fruit of his shriveled loins.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

January 10

According to their creation narrative, the Chinook people were the offspring of a thunderbird who nested her eggs on a mountain occupied by an ogress. The ogress threw the eggs from the mountain side, but the hatchlings survived and took their wives in the valley below.

By the beginning of the 19th century of the Christian calendar, the Clackamas -- one of the numerous Chinook tribes -- flourished in the area around Willamette Falls, located in what would soon be known to Americans as Oregon Territory. A salmon- and cedar-based society, the Clackamas inhabited several large settlements along the banks of the river; they were one of many smaller divisions of the Upper Chinook culture that dominated the region stretching from the mouth of the Columbia eastward to the Dalles River. The Clackamas enjoyed the wealth and regional power that flowed from their easy access to salmon and their extraordinary skill at fishing it from the Willamatte. Dominated by large cedar-plank houses, Clackamas villages became trading posts, where neighboring tribes came to trade beads, shells, coastal seafood, furs and horses. The Clamackas were a hierarchical society with a small aristocratic class and a somewhat larger stratum of middling sorts; the hereditary, ruling elites relied on Klamath and Molalla warriors to capture Northern California Indians who were absorbed into the villages as slaves.

When Lewis and Clark's expedition happened upon the Clackamas in 1805, they were esimated to number around 1500, although other estimates from the period place their numbers closer to 2500. By that point, diseases like smallpox had already begun to reduce the coastal population, including other Upper Chinook tribes. The turning point for the Clackamas came in 1829, when a New Englander named John Dominis attempted to found a fishery at the Clackamas Rapids. His efforts were rebuffed, but his deseased sailors infected the local population with the "cold sick," which eviscerated the tribe, killing 90% of its people that winter. By 1830, the Clackamas was no longer viable as an independent group.

On 10 January 1855, after two decades of struggle, the 88 remaining Clackamas Indians ceded land in the Willamette, Sandys and Clackamas Valleys to the United States in exchange for a $2500 annual annuity that was, pedictably enough, never actually paid. Relocated to the Grand Ronde Reservation with remnants of the Molalla, Kalapuya, Chasta, Rogue River and Umpqua tribes, the Clackamas had entirely disappeared by the 1920s.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

January 9

Anson Jones, the last president of the Republic of Texas, took his own life in a Houston hotel on this date in 1858. A physician by training, Jones had renounced medicine and migrated from Great Barrington, Massachusetts to Texas during the early 1830s and played important roles both the war with Mexico and -- a decade later -- the annexation of the republic by the United States. After Texas' absorption into the union in 1845, Jones was bitterly disappointed not to be appointed to the US Senate. Sam Houston and Thomas Jefferson Rusk were awarded the seats instead. In a spite-soaked letter to a friend, Jones predicted that his tombstone would someday read, "Murdered by a Country He Served and Saved."

During the last decade of his life, Jones wallowed in his disappointment, which was only accentuated by a crippling arm injury that came during a fall from his horse. In 1857, Rusk vacated his seat by committing suicide; his wife had recently died of tuberculosis, and a tumor was discovered in his neck. Coupled with Sam Houston's decision to run for governor, the death of Thomas Rusk meant that Anson Jones' senatorial ambitions suddenly appeared nearer to realization. Buoyed by misplaced optimism, he returned to the state capital, where he expected a triumphant welcome and a quick election to the upper house of Congress. Instead, Jones' arrival was virtually unnoticed in Austin, and he spent his days in his hotel room, brooding over his memorabilia from days gone by, including newspaper clippings and old letters that he believed would vindicate him in the eyes of history. After receiving exactly zero votes in the state legislature, Jones' life spiraled toward its conclusion. After selling his plantation for a quarter of its value, Jones traveled to Houston in January 1858 and sequestered himself in the Old Capitol Hotel for four dismal, lonely nights.

On January 10, it was reported that the forlorn Texas statesman had been discovered "lying across his bed this morning at half past 8 o’clock, a discharged pistol in his hand and his brains blown out. This is all the particulars of this lamentable affair we have been able to obtain.” Jones' wife Mary, twenty years his junior, became a widow for the second time.

Monday, January 08, 2007

January 8

Seven years after the United States acquired the massive Louisiana territory from France, the population of New Orleans consisted of more than 18,000 enslaved and free people of color who lived in subjection to the 8000 whites who also lived within the city walls. Louisiana was a horrific place for enslaved people, who died nearly as fast as they could be replaced, worn down by the building of levees, the clearing of fields, and the tending of sugar cane. Inspired by Haiti's recent successes against the Napoleonic armies, the slaves who lived in southern Louisiana's rural parishes hoped that a sudden insurrection -- assisted by the black majority of New Orleans -- might wrest control of the city away from its white minority. Like all slave uprisings in North America, previous ventures along these lines -- most recently in 1795 in Pointe Coupe -- had been brutally crushed and the conspirators executed swiftly. However, with US forces preoccupied with the Spanish in Florida at the time, the winter of 1811 seemed a more auspicious moment than most to revive the dream of a tiny black republic at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

After concocting their plot in the swamplands near Maupe, the rough militia embarked from the Aubry plantation, nearly 40 miles from the city, late in the afternoon of Janaury 8. They were led by a man named Charles Deslandes, who organized the army into neat formations and marched them with flags aloft. As their ranks swelled to more than 500 men armed with small arms and farm tools, the rebels arrived the next morning at the home of Jean Francois Trepagnier, six miles away. There, one of Trepagnier's slaves -- a young man named Gustav who had escaped shortly after his 21st birthday -- hacked his former master to death.

As word of the revolt spread throughout the sugar plantations, whites raised a militia of their own and were quickly assisted by US troops from Baton Rouge as well as the Free Black Militia of New Orleans, whose offers to help quell the insurgency were accepted. The enslaved rebels failed to reach the city arsenal, leaving them at the mercy of the much more capably armed free soldiers, who slaughtered them with canon fire at the Fortier Sugar Works, 18 miles from their' destination. Those who were not killed in battle were quickly tried and executed by hanging or firing squad at Saint Louis Cathedral. In the customary fashion, the heads of the slaves were cut off and placed along major roads as a warning to others.

Later, the Trepagnier plantation was renamed "Diamond." Today Diamond remains a predominantly black community, where descendants of slaves reside nearly 200 years after their ancestors witnessed the largest revolt in North American history.

By the end of the 20th century, Diamond had become a toxic swamp, as pollutants from incinerators, petrochemical and cement plants left the town's poorest residents suffering from chronic health problems.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

January 5 (belated)

On the anniverary of Mr. Ed's television debut on 5 January 1961, this blog was inexplicably recognized as Best Individual Blog by the judges at Cliopatra.

Over the course of his six-year television career, Mr. Ed rode a surfboard, drove a delivery truck, rescued Wilbur from a Mexican jail, saved the life of a young girl, and recorded a hit song. None of Mr. Ed's fine accomplishments, however, rival this fine award. Thanks to the judges at Cliopatra, and thanks of course to the twisted people who continue to read this blog.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

January 4

On 4 January 1987, speaking in hushed tones to his "Expect a Miracle" television audience, Oral Roberts announced that he needed money. More precisely, Oral Roberts explained that God had instructed him to raise $8 million for a medical missionary program by March 1 of that year; failing that, he explained dramatically, God would "call me home." Roberts begged his supporters not to let Satan win, and he suggested that in exchange for helping him seed the bed of his missionary work, contributors would receive a "hundredfold return" on their investment. He also suggested that viewers who did not donate would suffer greatly in the coming year.

Panicked by their fear that the charismatic, neo-Pentacostal televangelist might in fact surrender his mortal coil, Roberts' viewers squandered more than $9 million of their own money over the next several months, more than satisying the Lord's apparent thirst for cash. Over $1.3 million of the fund was offered by the owner of a dog track.

His financial goals met, Roberts was spared God's wrath for the time being. His medical program, however, sank like a poorly-constructed ark. Within a year, Roberts announced the closure of his City of Faith Medical Center; by early 1989, Roberts had canceled his university's free medical tuition and scholarship programs. Students who transferred to another medical school were forced to repay their debts immediately, at 18 percent interest. Eventually, the students were left with no choice but to leave, as Oral Roberts Medical School closed for good in September 1989. For a man who actually claimed to have raised the dead, the collapse of his own medical school must have seemed a bitter rebuke. Unshaken in his faith, however, Oral Roberts has continued his pharisaic gibbering and will celebrate his 88th birthday on January 24.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

January 3

Today is the 46th anniversary of the first nuclear reactor accident in United States history. On 3 January 1961 the three-megawatt SL-1 facility, an experimental reactor located about 40 miles west of Idaho Falls, was destroyed in roughly four milliseconds as a power surge vaporized the water surrounding the reactor core. Army specialists John Byrnes and Richard McKinley and Navy Electrician's Mate Richard Legg were killed; elements from the reactor core were blown into their bodies, which were horribly disfigured and pulsing with radiation. One of the men was impaled and pinned to the ceiling by a reactor shield plug, while the other two were blown sideways against a shielding block. Clean-up crews discovered that the bodies of the men -- one of whom survived for a brief period of time after the explosion -- were emitting at least 500 roentgens per hour even after their clothing had been cut away.

After much dispute over the final disposition of their bodies, Byrnes, McKinley and Legg were buried in lead-lined caskets, encased with concrete. The reactor itself received a similar farewell.


On 3 January 1924, a shower of red worms descended on the Swedish town of Halmsted. As described by Charles Fort in his 1931 chronicle of the bizarre, Lo!,
They were red worms, from one to four inches in length. Thousands of them streaking down with the snowflakes -- red ribbons in a shower of confetti -- a carnival scene that boosts my discovery that meteorology is a more picturesque science than most persons, including meteorologists, have suspected.
The "worms of heaven," he concluded, "seem to be a jolly lot."

Had Benito Mussolini been living in Halmsted, we can be assured that the jolly red worms would have been lined up against a wall and shot. One year after the Swedish deluge, Il Duce dissolved the Italian Parliament and rescinded all democratic liberties, bringing the force of the state to bear in subsequent years upon communists, socialists, trade unionists, and anarchists among others. As he explained in La Dottrina del fascismo, which he wrote with Giovanni Gentile in 1932,
Fascism wants man to be active and to engage in action with all his energies; it wants him to be manfully aware of the difficulties besetting him and ready to face them. It conceives of life as a struggle in which it behooves a man to win for himself a really worthy place, first of all by fitting himself (physically, morally, intellectually) to become the implement required for winning it. As for the individual, so for the nation, and so for mankind. . . .

This positive conception of life is obviously an ethical one. It invests the whole field of reality as well as the human activities which master it. No action is exempt from moral judgment; no activity can be despoiled of the value which a moral purpose confers on all things. Therefore life, as conceived of by the Fascist, is serious, austere, and religious; all its manifestations are poised in a world sustained by moral forces and subject to spiritual responsibilities. The Fascist disdains an "easy" life.
The Fascist would, we presume, hold January 3 in special contempt. Today, in addition to everything else, is the Festival of Sleep.

Monday, January 01, 2007

January 1

Spain did not adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1582, which means that 1 January 1554 did not mark the official start of the New Year. As he faced death that day, Pedro de Valdivia probably did not find much comfort in the knowledge that he would not, at least, begin the year on a bad note. Valdivia, the conquistador who took possession of Chile and was eventually rewarded with the title of governor, had spent the last years of his life in the vain and customary pursuit of territory and riches in the lands south of Peru. His efforts were not unopposed by the locals, who were less than enthusiastic about the intentions of their new neighbors. They destroyed Santiago -- the first city founded by Valdivia -- on 11 September 1541 and continued to obstruct the Spanish conquest for decades to come. At the battle of Tucapel, a week-long contest that began on 25 December 1553, Valdivia was captured by Mapuche Indians resisting Spanish encroachment. On January 1, molten gold was poured down the governor's throat. Whether he died of asphyxiation or internal bleeding, Pedro de Valdivia's death must have been excruciating.

Over the next three centuries most of the mineral wealth of Central and South American would continue to flow -- figuratively, at least -- into Spanish bellies, where they fattened one of the most powerful European empires of the last millennium.


According to Christian tradition, January 1 also marks the eighth day after Jesus' birth -- the day on which, by Jewish custom, he would have been circumcised. For centuries after his crucifixion, Jesus' foreskin remained an object of peculiar veneration, with as many as 18 different reliquary nubs of flesh circulating throughout the landscape of Europe by the 16th century. Like most Catholic relics, the Holy Prepuce was believed to possess extraordinary powers -- in this case, the Christ child's foreskin was believed to enhance fertility and sexuality. In 1421, the English King Henry V brought one of the rumored foreskins from the French village of Coulombs to aid his wife, Catherine of Valois, in the delivery of their first son. Alas, while the relic may have helped bring the future King Henry VI into the world, it did Henry V little enduring good. He died less than a year later.

Over time, the absurdity of the Holy Foreskin grew too great for even the Catholic Church to ignore. After 1900, the Church issued an edict than any discussion of the Holy Prepuce would result in excommunication and shunning; since the Vatican II reforms of the 1960s, Roman Catholics have not officially recognized the Feast of the Circumcision, choosing instead to acknowledge the Solemnity of St. Mary. The last public appearance of one of Jesus' alleged foreskins took place in the Italian village of Calcata, which had hosted the tip of the Redeemer's penis since 1557. Residents of Calcata and Catholic pilgrims continued to celebrate the Feast of the Circumcision until 1983, when thieves absconded with the foreskin and the jewel-encrusted box that contained it.