Thursday, May 31, 2007

May 31

On this date in 1779 Gen. George Washington, commander in chief of the Continental Army, ordered Major General John Sullivan to destroy the Iroquois tribes who had allied with the British during the American Revolution.

The Iroquois Confederacy -- which had been the major regional power in the eastern Great Lakes for hundreds of years -- had fractured during the war, with the Oneida and Tuscarora supporting the colonists while the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga and Mohawk cast their support for the British. After several massacres on the New York frontier claimed the lives of hundreds of colonial soldiers and civilians in 1778, Washington was determined to strike against the British-Indian alliance responsible for the killings. As Washington explained to Sullivan on 31 May 1779,
The Expedition you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the Six Nations of Indians, with their associates and adherents. The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements, and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more.

I would recommend, that some post in the center of the Indian Country, should be occupied with all expedition, with a sufficient quantity of provisions whence parties should be detached to lay waste all the settlements around, with instructions to do it in the most effectual manner, that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed.
The “future security” of the colonists, he explained, required that “Terror” be inflicted upon the Iroquois. Over the next two years, Sullivan’s men destroyed 40 Iroquois towns and sent thousands of Indians fleeing to Ft. Niagara, which was not adequately prepared to receive them. Meanwhile, the Continental Army burnt fruit trees, vegetables, and well over than 150,000 bushels of corn across the colony of New York. As Sullivan himself reported at the end of the campaign, “the immediate objects of this expedition are accomplished, viz: total ruin of the Indian settlements and the destruction of their crops, which were designed for the support of those inhuman barbarians, while they were desolating the American frontiers.”

The Iroquois confederacy never recovered from the Sullivan Expedition, and over the course of the next several decades lost nearly all of the land it had previously controlled. For his role in the campaign, George Washington earned the nickname “Town Destroyer” or “Devourer of Villages.”

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

May 30

The English playwright Christopher Marlowe took a fatal knife to the eye 414 years ago today. A contemporary of William Shakespeare, Michael Drayton, Ben Jonson and other late Elizabethan literary giants, Marlowe is best remembered for his dramatic works Tamburlaine, The Jew of Malta and Dr. Faustus. Along with several of his sonnets, these plays served as “evidence” that some literary scholars have used to argue that Marlowe was the actual author of Shakespeare’s works, including those published after Marlowe’s death -- a theory that presumes that said death was faked.

At the time of his demise, Marlowe was in a great deal of trouble. Based on information gathered by an informant named Richard Baines, authorities believed him to be an atheist who believed (among other things) that religion had been invented to “keep men in awe”; that the New Testament was badly written; and that the apostle John was Jesus’ lover and “used him as the sinners of Sodoma.” Ten days before his death, Marlowe had been arrested on charges of heresy, having been accused of writing anonymous poems ridiculing and threatening Dutch Protestants who had taken refuge in London. In the poem Marlowe was accused of writing, the author accuses the Dutch of venality and greed:
Ye strangers yet doe inhabite in this lande
Note this same writing doe it understand
Conceit it well for savegard of your lyves
Your goods, your children, & your dearest wives
Your Machiavellian Marchant spoyles the state,
Your usery doth leave us all for deade
Your Artifex, & craftesman works our fate,
And like the Jewes, you eate us up as bread
The poem went on to accuse the Dutch of being the treacherous agents of Catholic Spain, warning the “strangers” that their throats would soon be cut unless they were to “Fly, Flye, & never returne.”

If Marlowe was indeed that author of the poem, his death meant that he never had a chance to present his case. On 30 May 1593, after spending the afternoon dining and conversing with several friends, Marlowe became embroiled in an argument with a companion named Ingram Frizer over the bill. According to the coroner’s inquest, the playwright seized Frizer’s weapon and stabbed him twice in the head. During the struggle, Frizer pried the 12-pence knife from Marlowe’s hand and stabbed his assailant above the left eye, puncturing his brain and killing him instantly.



Friday, May 25, 2007

May 25

On this date in 1979, the state of Florida plugged in its electric chair for the first time in 15 years and executed John Spenkelink; this was the first involuntary execution in the United States since the Supreme Court restored the death penalty three years earlier. Spenkelink, a 30-year-old prison escapee from California, had been convicted killing Joseph Szymankiewicz in a Tallahassee hotel room in February 1973. The two men -- both of whom had extensive criminal records -- had been traveling together when Symankiewicz allegedly forced Spenkelink at gunpoint to perform an unspecified sexual act, then insisted the two play several rounds of Russian routlette. When the men arrived in Tallahassee, Spenkelink discovered that his money had been stolen. Enraged, Spenkelink waited until Szymankiewicz was asleep, then shot him twice and bludgeoned him with a hatchet.

At the time of the murder, Florida’s death penalty statute -- like every other such law in the nation -- had been thrown out by the Supreme Court, which ruled in Furman v. Georgia (1972) that capital punishment in the United States was administered “wantonly and freakishly” and that every law (as written) violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Florida was the first state to revise its death penalty code in line with the Court’s recommendations, and when a Tallahassee jury convicted him in December 1973, it recommended that Spenkelink be put to death. In 1976, the Supreme Court’s decision in Gregg v. Georgia allowed the Sunshine State -- along with Georgia and Texas -- to resume the killing.

John Spenkelink’s death warrant was first signed by Gov. Ruben Askew in 1977; after Spenkelink’s legal challenges proved fruitless, Askew’s successor Bob Graham finished the job. On 25 May 1979, Spenkelink was offered two swigs of whiskey before three massive jolts of electricity ended his life. According to legend, John Arthur Spenkelink’s last words were, “them without the capital get the punishment.”

Later that afternoon, an American Airlines DC-10 took off from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. As the plane sped down the runway, its left engine detached and tumbled across the wing, severing vital hydraulic lines that would otherwise have allowed the craft to land safely. After 31 seconds in the air, as the pilot struggled to stabilize the aircraft and return it to the ground, Flight 191 banked sharply to the left and plunged nose-first into a nearby field. The 271 passengers and crew died instantly, while two victims on the ground perished when debris from the wreck scattered into a mobile home park. The crash remains the deadliest accidental air disaster in US history.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

May 24

An eager 32-year-old physician and anthropologist started a new job on this date in 1943. After battle injuries cut short his stint with the SS on the eastern front, Josef Mengele was offered the chance to oversee the “Gypsy camp” at Auschwitz-Birkenau -- a position that gave him the opportunity to work with the only group of people he loathed more than the Jews. Among his first decisions at Birkenau, Mengele ordered 600 hospitalized women to be sent to the gas chambers. Nicknamed the “Angel of Death” by those incarcerated at the facility, one of Mengele’s central responsibilities was to stand on the camp’s railroad platform and determine which arrivals would be executed immediately and which would be conscripted as laborers -- and as subjects for his “research.” By all accounts, Mengele carried out this responsibility with special relish, whistling and using a riding crop to sort the living from the dead. Other doctors were unable to perform similar duties without being drunk.

A true believer in Nazi racial ideology, Mengele used his position at Auschwitz-Birkenau to pursue scientific research into anomalies and diseases he considered genetic in origin. He was especially interested in twins, whom he believed held the secrets of heredity. He kept them in a separate barracks he called “the Zoo,” where they were spared from the gas chambers and forced labor but were subjected to the doctor’s perverse and scientifically useless experiments.

During his two years at the camp, Mengele carried out a variety of grotesque experiments on children, dwarfs and people with physical “defects.” He injected the eyes of his subjects with various chemicals to see if iris color could be deliberately altered; he ordered surgical amputations and useless spinal taps; he broke their limbs with a vice; he personally murdered numerous inmates, sometimes for the simple reason that he wished to conduct a dissection; he exposed his subjects to various diseases to see how long they might survive. On one occasion, he sterilized a group of Polish nuns with an X-ray machine.

Miklos Nyiszli, Mengele’s pathologist, described in a 1945 deposition the calm manner in which his colleague exterminated his subjects
In the work room next to the dissecting room, 14 gypsy twins were waiting . . . and crying bitterly. Dr. Mengele didn't say a single word to us, and prepared a 10 cc. and 5 cc. syringe. From a box he took evipan, and from another box he took chloroform, which was in 20 cubic-centimeter glass containers, and put these on the operating table. After that, the first twin was brought in . . . a 14-year-old girl. Dr. Mengele ordered me to undress the girl and put her on the dissecting table. Then he injected the evipan into her right arm intravenously. After the child had fallen asleep, he felt for the left ventricle of the heart and injected 10 cc. of chloroform. After one little twitch the child was dead, whereupon Dr. Mengele had it taken into the corpse chamber. In this manner, all 14 twins were killed during the night.
After the war, Mengele fled to South America, where he lived out the remainder of his life as a fugitive in Argentina and Brazil. In February 1979, the Angel of Death suffered a stroke and drowned while swimming in the Atlantic Ocean.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

May 18

Four days after Nikolai Alexandrovich Romanov was coronated Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, a massive festival in his honor turned into a deadly stampede. Drawn by promises of free beer and gifts, as many as half a million people gathered at Khodynka Field, just northwest of Moscow, in the early morning hours of 18 May 1896 (by the Julian calendar, which Russia still used). Amazingly, officials assigned a little more than a dozen men to keep the crowd orderly. When rumors spread that insufficient quantities of beer were available, the crowd began to surge forward in the direction of the 150 buffet tables and 20 pubs that had been constructed for the occasion. In the panic that ensued, more than 1300 people were crushed and suffocated.

The Khodynka tragedy cast a call over the entire reign of Russia’s last tsar. Vladimir Lenin among other revolutionaries and opponents of Nicholas II referred to him as the “Khodynka Tsar” and “Bloody Nicholas,” a nickname that applied especially well in July 1917, when Bolshevik revolutionaries executed him and his entire family.


More than 30 years after the Khodynka stampede, a disgruntled Michigan farmer named Andrew Kehoe beat his wife to death, set his house alight, then blew up the north wing of the Bath Consolidated School, instantly killing 36 children and two teachers. Kehoe, a member of the Bath County school board, was disgruntled over the property taxes levied to pay for the facilities, which he blamed for the impending foreclosure of his farm. His efforts to reduce the property taxes were not successful, however. Determined to avenge his largely self-inflicted economic misfortunes, Kehoe began in the summer of 1926 to stockpile more than a ton of pyrotol, an explosive introduced during World War I. He also bought several boxes of dynamite. As a school board member and school handyman, Kehoe had complete access to the school and packed the explosives into the basement sometime during the months leading up to the event.

On the morning of May 18, Kehoe destroyed his own barn with firebombs, killing all of the livestock who were trapped inside. As firefighters rushed to the scene, half of the explosives in the schoolhouse detonated. One of Kehoe’s neighbors, M.J. Ellsworth, wrote a book about the bombing and described the morning’s horrors
There were sights that I hope no one will ever have to look at again. Children would be brought out, some with legs dropping, some with arms broken and hanging, some would be moaning, and others would be still. When carrying them, you would know they would never answer their mother's call again. They were all hard to recognize when they were first brought out because they were covered with plaster and cement -- and nearly all bleeding to a certain extent.

I saw one mother, Mrs. Eugene Hart, sitting on the bank a short distance from the school with a little dead girl on each side of her and holding a little boy, Percy, who died a short time after they got him to the hospital.
As more than a hundred townspeople combed the wreckage for survivors and the dead, Kehoe arrived on the scene in his car, which he had packed with dynamite, dismantled farm equipment, tools and scrap metal. Using a shotgun to detonate the explosives, Kehoe blew himself and four other people to smithereens.

Kehoe’s body landed a short distance from the wrecked car and was later buried in an unmarked grave. The funerals of his victims drew thousands of mourners from across the state.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

May 16

On 16 May 1874, the Williamsburg reservoir dam collapsed in western Massachusetts, sending out a torrent of 600 million gallons of water, which lifted hundreds of thousands of tons of rocks, earth, trees, livestock and other debris to heights of 40 feet as it rolled across the land. Several towns were crushed and 139 lives were lost in the surge from the Mill River before the floodwaters spread out across the broad agricultural plain around Northampton.

Developed to aid the light industrial economy of Western Massachusetts, the earthenwork dam was one of four major reservoirs in the region and had been completed less than a decade before the 1874 disaster. Designed by amateur civil engineers, the project was riddled with design flaws that were apparent to the original surveyor as well as several of the builders who worked on the project. Their concerns were ignored, and the leaky dam held for several years before an especially heavy patch of spring rain loosened and dislodged a section of the east bank just after 7:00 a.m. on May 16. Realizing that the entire structure was about to disintegrate, the gatekeeper of the reservoir -- a young man named George Cheney -- immediately rushed out on horseback to warn the nearby towns. Twenty minutes later, the dam exploded outward and upward. The sound, as Cheney’s wife described it, was like an earthquake.

Williamsburg, Skinnerville, Leeds and Haydenville were obliterated. One survivor recalled later that
A great mass of brush, trees, and trash was rolling rapidly toward me. I have tried many times to describe how this appeared; perhaps the best simile is that of hay rolling over and over as a hay rake moves along the field, only this roll seemed 20-feet high, and the spears of grass in the hayrake enlarged to limbs and trunks of trees mixed with boards and timbers; at this time I saw no water.
Homes were lifted into the air and smashed against the sides of factories. Almost nothing remained in the wake. Nearly 1000 people were instantly rendered homeless. The scale of the disaster was so enormous that the commonwealth of Massachusetts -- by custom reluctant to intervene with state assistance -- had no choice but to appropriate over $100,000 for to rebuild roads and bridges.

The last of the flood victims’ bodies -- those of seven-year-old Rosa Wilson, seventeen-year-old Julia Patrick, and a sawyer named Augustus Laney -- were not recovered for more than a month. The body of John Fennessey, a six-year-old from Leeds, was never found.

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Monday, May 14, 2007

May 14

On this date in 1961 -- Mothers’ Day -- civil rights activists affiliated with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) were attacked by white mobs in Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama, when they attempted to ride through the state on Greyhound and Trailways buses. Following the US Supreme Court’s decision in Boynton v. Virginia -- which ruled segregation on interstate bus lines unconstitutional -- black and white “Freedom Riders” decided to test the willingness of white Southerners to adhere to the law. Fewer than two dozen set out from the nation’s capital on May 4. They had dutifully sent their itinerary to the Justice Department. J. Edgar Hoover promptly forwarded it to state officials in Alabama, many of whom were known to have Klan affiliations.

The rides began in early May. Defying custom, white riders sat in the back while black passengers occupied the front seats. When the buses stopped, the CORE riders refused to observe the segregated conditions that were still observed in southern bus terminals; whites used “colored” restrooms and waiting areas, while blacks used facilities reserved for whites.

The rides encountered minor violence in Rock Hill, South Carolina, but everyone knew the worst was yet to come. As Martin Luther king, Jr., had warned the riders, “You won’t make it through Alabama.” Indeed, when the CORE buses crossed the Georgia state line on their way to Birmingham, they encountered ferocious resistance. At a rest stop in Anniston, the Greyhound passengers were attacked by local members of the Ku Klux Klan and nearly 200 of their closest friends. One of the riders, James Peck, wrote about the incident in his book Freedom Rider (1962):
They set about the vehicle, denting the sides, breaking windows, and slashing tires. Finally, the police arrived and the bus managed to depart. But the mob pursued in cars. Within minutes, the pursuing mob was hitting the bus with iron bars. The rear window was broken and a bomb was hurled inside. All the passengers managed to escape before the bus burst into flames and was totally destroyed. Policemen, who had been standing by, belatedly came on the scene. A couple of them fired into the air. The mob dispersed and the injured were taken to a local hospital.
By this point, Walter Bergman had been kicked until his brain hemorrhaged. He remained in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. The reception in Anniston was not entirely unhelpful, though. A 12-year-old white girl named Jamie Miller brought a bucket of water to the riders, who were choking from smoke inhalation. Facing constant taunts and threats from other whites in the community, she and her family soon moved from Anniston.

When the Trailways bus arrived two hours later, Klansmen boarded as well, beat the Freedom Riders and forced them to the back of the bus for the two-hour ride to Birmingham. As they drew nearer to the city, Klansmen taunted and threatened the passengers. When the group arrived in Birmingham, the violence resumed with the complicity of the local police, who allowed the racist mob fifteen minutes of unimpeded access to the riders. Gary Thomas Rowe was among those who awaited the arrival of the civil rights activists. Years later, he described the event:
We made an astounding sight . . . men running and walking down the streets of Birmingham on Sunday afternoon carrying chains, sticks, and clubs. Everything was deserted; no police officers were to be seen except one on a street corner. He stepped off and let us go by, and we barged into the bus station and took it over like an army of occupation. There were Klansmen in the waiting room, in the rest rooms, in the parking area.
When the bus arrived in Birmingham, the seven Freedom Riders were dragged from the vehicle, chased into the streets, punched and kicked into semi-consciousness. After 20 minutes, the mob dispersed.

Photographs of the assaults in Anniston and Birmingham were published nationwide and even overseas. When activists from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee joined the Freedom Riders to help them complete the journey, they were attacked as well in Montgomery, where one man was doused in gasoline and set on fire. The Kennedy administration, embarrassed and shocked by the violence, quietly negotiated with the racist governor of Mississippi, James Eastland, to have the riders arrested for their own protection when they crossed into his jurisdiction. As more riders entered Mississippi and as the arrests mounted, some of the activists were shipped off to Parchman Farm, a former slave plantation than had become one of the most notorious facilities in American history.

The Freedom Rides -- scores of them -- continued throughout the summer and into the fall of 1961. The Kennedy administration did as little as possible, blaming the activists themselves for causing international embarrassment to the US. In September, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued a long-overdue order that put the Supreme Court's desegregation rulings into effect.



Friday, May 11, 2007

May 11

On 11 May 1970, a black Army veteran named Henry Marrow died outside a grocery store in Oxford, North Carolina. Marrow was beaten and then shot by three white men who objected to what they characterized as an inappropriate remark made by Marrow to a white woman -- a woman who happened to be the 18-year-old daughter-in-law of Robert Teel, the store owner. After a brief confrontation over the alleged remarks, the murderers -- Robert Teel, his son Larry and his stepson Roger Oakley -- chased Marrow from the store; as Marrow fled toward the highway, one of the men shot him in the leg, incapacitating him. The trio then pummeled Marrow with their rifle butts, fracturing his skull and breaking one of the guns in the process. One of the three then shot the near-unconscious man in the head as he pleaded for his life.

Marrow left behind a wife and twin daughters, with a third child only a few months from being born.

The killing of Henry Marrow occurred in open daylight, with multiple eyewitnesses. As the prosecutor later described it, “They shot him like a hog. They shot him like you or I would kill a snake.” Following Marrow’s death, the segregated black community of Oxford -- convinced that no one would ever be tried or convicted of the crime -- took out their anger on the business district of downtown Oxford, where two nights of rioting damaged nearly two dozen white-owned businesses. Rioters were unable, however, to pull down a local statue of a Confederate soldier. Meantime, local Klansmen armed with rifles and shotguns guarded the Teel house. Gun shops sold out of ammunition in the coming days, as Oxford’s white community prepared for an all-out race war that mercifully did not come.

An all-white jury acquitted Robert and Larry Teel on the implausible pretense that they were acting in self-defense. The killing of Henry Marrow and the acquittal of the Teels sparked a black boycott against white-owned businesses in the small town. By the end of the year -- six years after the passage of a federal civil rights law intended to prohibit racial discrimination -- the white community of Oxford agreed to desegregate the town’s commercial institutions.



Thursday, May 10, 2007

May 10

Today is the fourteenth anniversary of the Kader Industrial Company fire, which killed and injured hundreds of young Thai workers who had labored to produce cheap stuffed and plastic toys for Tyco, Kenner, Disney and other US-based companies. The Kader factory was a hastily constructed outpost in the export processing zone of Buddha-monthom, located about 20 kilometers from Bangkok. The factory drew workers -- most of whom were young women -- from the rural provinces of the country, where economic opportunities were constrained by the country’s rapid industrialization. In return for shifts that stretched at times to 19 hours, these workers as little as $2.40 per day.

The blaze, which began in a room used to store finished products, quickly spread throughout the complex and trapped the workers, who could not leave through doors and windows that were deliberately locked and obstructed. The building itself did not have automatic sprinklers, fire extinguishers or functioning alarms; moreover, it was constructed with complete disregard for building codes (which were, in any case, not enforced). As a consequence, while many of victims were killed by smoke inhalation, many others perished when the frail building collapsed.

Survivor Lampan Taptim described the blaze in a report issued by the International Conference on Free Trade Unions:
There was the sound of yelling about a fire. I tried to leave the section but the supervisor told me to get back to work. My sister who worked on the fourth floor with me pulled me away and insisted we try to get out. We tried to go down the stairs and got to the second floor. We found that the stairs had already caved in. There was a lot of yelling and confusion. I couldn't go down further. In desperation I went back up to the windows and went back and forth looking down below. The smoke was thick and I picked the best place to jump in a pile of boxes. My sister jumped too. She died.
The fact that the Kader factory produced children’s toys gave the tragedy an added dimension of horror. A melted Bart Simpson doll -- one of the most popular items produced by Kader -- became the symbol for the fire, appearing on labor posters and other memorials to the 188 who died and 500 who were injured.

Accountability for the disaster was distributed inequitably. Accused of starting the fire with a discarded cigarette, a single worker, Viroj Yusak, received a ten year jail sentence from a Thai court. Fourteen company executives were acquitted of all charges of negligence, even though they had been warned by the Thai Labor Ministry to improve safety standards.

A decade later, the Kader Industrial Company was fined the equivalent of $12,300 for the deadliest industrial fire in history.



Wednesday, May 09, 2007

May 9

On this date in 1980, a freighter -- blown off course in the perilous shipping lane of Tampa Bay -- struck the Sunshine Skyway Bridge just after 7:30 a.m. On impact, the Summit Venture, empty and riding high in the water, destroyed nearly 1300 feet of roadway and sent three dozen people plunging into the channel. The captain of the freighter, John Lerro, was attempting to guide his ship through one of the longest and most dangerous shipping channels in the world; his mission was complicated by a sudden and unexpected blast of horrendous weather, which left him as well as everyone on the bridge shrouded in zero-visibility conditions, with rain and fog and winds that approached 60 miles per hour. The ship’s radar failed as well.

A minute before impact, conditions cleared enough for Lerro to see that his ship was off course and heading toward the bridge. Last-second emergency maneuvers were ineffective. Most of the 35 people who died that morning were traveling on a Greyhound bus, which tumbled into the bay and -- in the words of one observer -- “split open like a ripe tomato.” Seven other cars joined the bus in the water. Only one man survived.


Nineteen years later, a Custom Charters bus veered off Highway 610 in Louisiana and crashed into an embankment, killing 22 people who were headed to a Biloxi, Mississippi casino to celebrate Mothers’ Day. The driver of the bus, Frank Bedell, had passed out just before the accident. According to one witness, the bus "closed up like an accordion," ejecting passengers in all directions.

By any measure, Bedell should not have been driving that morning. His employers were evidently unaware that Bedell had been hospitalized 20 times in the previous two years for kidney and heart ailments that eventually took his life three months after the Mothers’ Day catastrophe. Investigators later discovered that Bedell had received dialysis treatement the day before the crash and checked himself out of the hospital against his doctor’s advice; desperate to earn a living, he was given fluids and sent home 10 hours before taking the wheel. It likely didn’t help matters that Bedell was taking Benadryl and had apparently smoked marijuana sometime before taking the wheel.

It was also not insignificant that Custom Charters routinely broke federal law by insisting that its drivers work without the mandatory eight hours of rest between trips. In 1998, federal investigators slapped the company on the wrist after learning that its drivers -- at the insistence of their supervisors -- were submitting falsified logs to conceal their illegally long shifts. Custom was also cited for failing to do criminal background and medical checks on their employees, and for instituting a drug and alcohol screening program that was apparently non-functional. Any of these precautions would have saved nearly two dozen lives.

Frank Bedell died of a heart attack three months after the Mothers' Day catastrophe.



Monday, May 07, 2007



By the end, Herbert was practically immobilized by diabetes; diagnosed in October, he never responded to insulin and spent the last six months of his life in a long, slow, downward spiral. Even at 30 units of Vetsulin each day, he showed no signs of improvement, refusing to clean himself and lacking all interest in the outdoors, where he used to spend his summers slaughtering shrews and small birds. Instead, he passed his days napping uncomfortably and waiting for the next can of wet food, which he consumed ravenously and without joy, his poor body screaming for nourishment that neither nature nor pharmaceuticals could supply. When we weren't looking, he poached food from our plates and gobbled unsentried sticks of butter. It was funny for a while, and then it wasn't. Last month, he took to shitting on the floor. Always the most fastidious of our three cats, Herbert must have felt the most extraordinary shame as his condition devolved. He began telling us it was time to go long before we were willing to believe him. As the cliche has it, he's no longer suffering. Still, his passing has crushed us.

He was an extraordinary animal. My wife picked him out of a litter ten years ago in suburban Minneapolis, largely because of the crazed expression on his face and his apparent zeal for life, which he showed by dangling from the top of the cage and howling incoherently. As a kitten, he fell into a toilet. As he passed into adulthood, Herbert was as fortunate as he was fearless. During his decade of misadventure, he survived a three-story tumble from an apartment flower box; wrestled with Rottweiler and Newfoundland puppies; recovered from infected puncture wounds suffered during at least three major rows with his rival across the street; and followed black bears as they lumbered through the neighborhood. He was a prolific murderer of small game, including earthworms and dragonflies. Had he been large enough, he probably would have eaten us as well.

Instead, he gave us many (and yet, through no fault of his own, too few) years of amusement and frustration, both of which are now at least momentarily indistinguishable, having blending into a staggering sense of loss. As a general matter, I don't think humans are worthy of anything resembling Heaven, but I desperately want to believe that our pets live forever.

Goodbye, Herbert. You'll not be forgotten.

May 7

A horrific tornado reduced the city of Natchez, Mississippi to splinters on this date in 1840. The twister hit ground 20 miles to the southeast on the morning of May 7 and wound its way northward , stripping everything in its path. Along the way, the tornado sank steamboats like the Hinds, the Prairie and the St. Lawrence; it devastated the plantations of David Barland and P.M. Lapice.; then came Natchez, the oldest European settlement along the Mississippi River.

The Natchez Free Trader later described the mid-day arrival of the twister
The dinner bells in the large hotels had rung and most . . . citizens were sitting at their tables when suddenly, the atmosphere was darkened, so as to require the lighting of candles; and, in a few moments afterwards, the rain was precipitated in tremendous cataracts rather than in drops. In another moment the tornado, in all its wrath, was upon us. The strongest buildings shook as if tossed with an earthquake. The air was black with whirling eddies of house walls, roofs chimneys, huge timbers torn from distant ruins, all shot through the air as if thrown from a mighty catapult.
After five minutes, most of the town lay in ruins. In addition to the wind damage, the extremely low air pressure caused many buildings to burst from the inside. More than a hundred boats, many of which bore food and other supplies for the surrounding county, were gone. In their wake, the river filled with pork, bacon, butter, lard, and vegetables in addition to the bodies of hundreds of dock workers and shipmen.

The official death toll was eventually placed at 317, though that figure was quite likely understated the human cost of the disaster, since enslaved people were not included in the tally.


On the 124th anniversary of the Natchez tornado and 49 years after a German torpedo sent the Lusitania to the bottom of the sea, a depressed San Francisco warehouse worker brought down a Pacific Airlines turboprop by shooting the pilot and co-pilot during an early morning flight home from Reno. The National Transportation Safety Board described the incident as an “act of self-destruction.” In addition to the shooter, 43 other people died when the plane crashed into a hill near San Ramon. No one survived.

With the benefit of hindsight, there were plenty of subtle clues that something like this might happen. Frank Gonzalez, who had traveled to Reno to gamble away the rest of his savings, had been telling friends and co-workers for weeks that he would die in early May. The day before his return to California, Gonzales purchased a .357 revolver. He would later display his new weapon to friends at the airport, where he purchased $105,000 in life insurance and told several people that he was planning to kill himself.

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

May 2

Leopold II of Belgium formalized his rule over the "Congo Free State" -- surely one of the great misnomers in the history of imperialism -- on this date in 1885. During the previous six years, Sir Henry Morton Stanley had concluded a series of advantageous treaty negotiations with the tribal chiefs of central Africa, whose lands were given over to the king for his personal enrichment. Stanley, quite famously, observed that "the savage only respects force, power, boldness, and decision," advice that Leopold surely took to heart as he spent the next 20 years administering the destruction of millions of people whose homelands he would never visit.

The history of the Congo Free State amounts to one of the great mass murders in human history, as a familiar nexus of racism and economic exploitation was condensed into two decades of systematic atrocity carried out with only the barest pretesnse of "White Man's Burden." Leopold opened parts of the Congo to European entrepreneurs, who purchased the rights to exploit the land for rubber and ivory; in exchange for granting monopoly rights, the Belgian ruler asked only for a 50 percent share in the profits. In the regions of the "Free State" that the king ruled directly, he borrowed from 16th century Spanish conduct in the West Indies and demanded annual production and labor quotas from the locals. The quotas were more than mere recommendations. White deputies of the king, known as the Force Publique, brutalized the various Congolese tribes, enforcing the king's authority over nearly a million square miles of land; the FP also punished interference from Congolese or Arab traders who competed with European merchants. During the "rubber terror," recalcitrant or non-productive tribes were tortured, mutilated and shot. FP conscripts were allowed to submit baskets of severed hands to their commanding officers, "tributes" of a different sort than relieved them of responsibility for failing to extract the quotas from the subject peoples.

Villages were depopulated and burnt to the ground. One member of the FP later testified that in one episode,
[w]e fell upon them all and killed them without mercy ... [Our leader] ordered us to cut off the heads of the men and hang them on the village palisades, also their sexual members, and to hang the women and children on the palisades in the form of a cross.
Between five and fifteen million Congolese died during the 23 years of Leopold's rule, while the king himself absconded with 220 million francs in personal profit, an amount totalling more than a billion dollars in contemporary terms.

By the early years of the new century, word of Leopold's savagery leaked to the European public, who reacted in horror at the revelations of journalists like Edmund Morel or novelists like Joseph Conrad, whose Heart of Darkness was based on his observations as captain of a steamer on the Congo River. Writing about a decade before the king's death, Mark Twain declared that
Leopold has deliberately destroyed more lives than have suffered death on all the battlefields of this planet for the past thousand years. In this vast statement I am well within the mark, several millions of lives with the mark. It is curious that the most advanced and most enlightened century of all the centuries the sun has looked upon should have the ghastly distinction of having produced this moldy and piety-mouthing hypocrite, this bloody monster whose mate is not findable in human history anywhere, and whose personality will surely shame hell itself when he arrives there--which will be soon, let us hope and trust.
Investigations by European governments eventually persuaded the Belgian parliament to wrest control from Leopold in 1908. The damage, however, had already been done. Not only had Leopold destroyed tens of millions of lives while depleting the wealth of a continent, but his entrepreneurial imperialism accelerated the European quest for African lands -- a competitive cycle that would bring devastating consequences for hundreds of millions more, including Europeans themselves. By 1914, the bearers of "civilization" -- driven mad by nationalism and imperial competition -- paused for a moment and began slaughtering one another for a change.

Leopold II, sadly, was not around to witness the fruits of his effort to subdue the Congo. By the time the Germans occupied most of his country, Leopold had been dead for five years.

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