Wednesday, August 29, 2007

August 30

Two hundred and seven years ago, an enslaved blacksmith named Gabriel launched a conspiracy that -- had it not been foiled by weather and betrayal -- would have amounted to the largest slave rebellion in American history. Gabriel "Prosser," as he was known, believed himself to be a liberator of the oppressed; as such, his readings of the Bible convinced him that God would favor his efforts to lead an army of his fellow bondsmen against the city of Richmond, Virginia. With the help of a small group of co-consirators, Gabriel devoted months during the summer of 1800 to gathering comrades and weapons. They devised a plan to capture Virginia's governor, James Monroe, and use him as leverage to sever the state from the union and proclaim an independent, slavery-free republic with Gabriel himself as ruler.

The plan collapsed in spectacular fashion on August 30, the night chosen for the uprising, when torrential rains washed out key bridges and roads. As rumors of a slave insurrection caused eastern Virginia's white population to cower in their homes, the lure of financial reward drew several of Gabriel's army into the eager embrace of local militias. The plot foiled, Gabriel and the leaders of the rebellion scattered into the countryside, where they were hunted and captured over the next several weeks. Gabriel himself was delivered to authorities in mid-September after taking refuge aboard a schooner owned by a former slave overseer who -- having since altered his views of the peculiar institution -- agreed to take Gabriel to freedom. Unfortunately for the rebel leader, he was betrayed in Norfolk by a fellow slave named Billy, who -- believing he would earn $300 for his troubles -- ultimately received a mere $50 for the information that led to Gabriel's capture.

After a brief trial, Gabriel dangled from the gallows on October 10, 1800. All told, nearly three dozen slaves lost their lives in the aftermath of the failed revolt. The commonwealth of Virginia spent about $9000 compensating the owners of the dead.

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August 29

Francisco de Xeres, secretary to the illiterate conquistador Francisco Pizarro, chronicled an execution that took place in the summer of 1533. The victim was a man named Atahualpa, who was at the time the sovereign ruler of the Incan Empire. Pizarro had taken Atahualpa hostage the previous November after her rejected the Spaniard's demand that he submit to Christianity. By showing his disdain for the so-called requerimiento, Atahualpa had unwittingly violated Spanish law, which he quite reasonably believed did not apply to his own people. After months of captivity, during which time Pizarro and his 168 soldiers extracted staggering ransom from Atahualpa's subjects, the last sovereign Inca was convicted on utterly implausible charges of murder and treason and sentenced to death.

As de Xeres explained, Atahualpa's sentence -- to be burnt alive -- might be altered if he converted.
They brought out Atahualpa to execution; and, when he came into the square, he said he would become a Christian. The Governor was informed, and ordered him to be baptized. The ceremony was performed by the very reverend Father Friar Vicente de Valverde. The Governor then ordered that he should not be burned, but that he should be fastened to a pole in the open space and strangled. This was done, and the body was left until the morning of the next day, when the monks, and the Governor with the other Spaniards, conveyed it into the church, where it was interred with much solemnity, and with all the honors that could be shown it. Such was the end of this man, who had been so cruel. He died with great fortitude, and without showing any feeling . . .
He also died, in the eyes of the Spanish, as "Juan de Atahualpa" -- the Christian name he enjoyed for the last few moments of his life.

Although Atahualpa was most likely garotted in late July 1533, his death has frequently -- and more poetically -- been assigned to August 29, which happens to be the Catholic feast day in honor of John the Baptist.

Meantime, perhaps 90-95 percent of the Incan Empire succumbed to smallpox, a horrific disease to which the Spanish were immune.

Last year's entry: the Rais Massacre

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

August 28

As the Portugese set down roots for the first European empires in Africa and Asia, the importance of the da Gama family was unrivaled. Vasco da Gama, the family patriarch, first navigated his way around the coast of Africa in 1497, bringing such enduring fame to Portugal that -- among other honorifics -- a crater on the Moon would one day bear his name. The next year, he reached India, setting into motion four and a half centuries of European colonialism in the Asian subcontinent; India would avenge itself in 1524 by transmitting to the great explorer a fatal case of malaria.

Christovao da Gama, Vasco’s lesser-known son, came to an even more gruesome end on the continent of Africa two decades later. During an expedition to East Africa in 1542, da Gama set out against Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghaza, the Muslim conqueror of Ethiopia. After a series of battles in which the Portugese prevailed, the captain and his men were defeated at the Battle of Wofla. Weary and staggering with pain from a bullet that had shattered his right arm, da Gama escaped with fourteen of his men. After dressing their leader’s wounds with the fat from his own slaughtered mule, the Portugese hid in a thicket, where they were soon captured. Miguel de Castanhoso, the official chronicler of da Gama’s expedition, described the subsequent ordeal. Al-Ghaza ordered him to be stripped,
with his hands tied behind him, and then cruelly scourged, and his face buffeted with his negro’s shoes; of his beard he made wicks, and covering them with wax lighted them . . . . After this, he sent [da Gama] to all his tents and his Captains for his refreshment, where many insults were heaped on him, all of which he bore with much patience: giving many thanks to God for bringing him to this, after allowing him to reconquer one hundred leagues of Christian country. After they had diverted themselves with him they returned to the King’s tend, who with his own hand cut off his head, it not satisfying him to order it to be cut off. After it had been cut off, in that very place where his blood was spilt, there started a spring of water which gave health to the sick, who bathed in it . . . .
As for Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghaza, he lived another six months until the Portugese tracked him down and killed him.

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Monday, August 27, 2007

August 27

Ed Gein, America’s greatest necrophiliac, was born 101 years ago today in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Gein’s mother, Augusta, was crazed with religion and eventually insisted her family retreat from the temptations of the city, where she believed her sons would turn into sex-crazed zombies. Moving to rural Plainfield, the Gein family lived in relative isolation from the rest of the world, with Ed and his older brother Henry remaining on the farm well into their adult years.

Sadly for “Weird Old Eddie,” Gein’s father, his brother Henry, and his mother all died within a five-year period during the early 1940s. Gein’s devotion to his mother was especially severe, and her passing crushed him. This left Ed utterly alone with his increasingly bizarre obsessions, which included human taxonomy and graverobbing -- interests he cultivated by reading pulp fiction, pornography and medical almanacs. Freed from the supervisory eyes of his family, Gein’s various sojourns to the graveyards of central Wisonsin provided him with a great many trophies. Among his more impressive feats, Ed Gein exhumed the bodies of the recently deceased and shrank their heads, some of which he displayed to the occasional visitor, claiming to have received them from the South Pacific. He also draped flayed skin over a tailor’s dummy, intending to compose a suit of female skin.

In November 1957, a Plainfield hardware store owner named Bernice Worden vanished; Gein was the last person seen at her store, and his reputation cast reasonable suspicion on his role in the disappearance. When Gein’s farmhouse was searched, horrified police -- including Worden’s son, who happened to be the sheriff -- discovered the missing woman’s decapitated corpse, hanging upside-down in the woodshed like a dressed deer. In addition to Worden’s body, Gein’s house was found to contain a necklace of human lips, clothing and lampshades composed of tanned human skins, and skulls that had been converted into bedposts and soup bowls. The refrigerator was packed with human organs.

Declared unfit to stand trial, Ed Gein was hospitalized for a decade before receiving his day in court. In 1968, his medical confinement was made permanent as a judge declared him not guilty by reason of insanity. After nearly thirty years of confinement at Central State Hospital, Gein died of respiratory failure in July 1984, a month before his 78th birthday.



Friday, August 24, 2007

August 24

As the Black Death brought fever and boils to the middle decades of the 14th century, religious minorities among other groups were assigned blame for a disease that ultimately killed tens of millions of people across Europe and Asia. Throughout Europe, Jews and Muslims were looked at with particular suspicion; religious persecutions intensified as the plague depopulated the continent. The years 1348-1351 were uniquely awful for Jews, who already labored under inquisitions and harsh laws that punished them, so the logic went, for leading Christ to his slaughter.

As the bodies piled up in the houses and streets of European towns and cities, rumors circulated that rabbis had concocted the pestilence from the innards of spiders, owls, snakes and toads. Accused throughout the land of poisoning well-water, the European Jewry endured a wave of massacres and expulsions unprecedented in the history of Christendom. Thousands were burnt alive in Basel, Strasburg, Colmar, Speyer and Zurich; others were walled up in their homes and left to starve. Overall, more than 200 Jewish communities were destroyed utterly by 1351, with many of the survivors migrating into Poland, Lithuania, and other regions of Eastern Europe.

On August 24, 1349, one of the worst of the plague massacres occurred in the German cities of Mainz and Breslau -- the two largest Jewish communities in Germany -- where between 6000 and 12,000 people were roasted in a single day.

Last year's post: Pliny the Elder and Elizabeth Kubler-Ross



Thursday, August 23, 2007

August 23

Eighty years ago today, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed at Charlestown State Prison in Massachusetts for the murder of two shoe factory employees seven years before. The murders took place in the midst of the post-World War I “red scare,” and the arrest of two Italian anarchists -- a class considered by many Americans as the gravest threat to the nation -- surprised no one. Although physical evidence connecting the men to the crime was either ambiguous or nonexistent, a circumstantial case persuaded a jury of their guilt; Judge Webster Thayer, who presided over the original trial, had set the tone for the proceedings by equating jury duty with military service.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts called upon you to render a most important service. Although you knew that such service would be arduous, painful and tiresome, yet you, like the true soldier, responded to that call in the spirit of supreme American loyalty. There is no better word in the English language than “loyalty.”
Thayer, who once berated a jury for acquitting an Italian anarchist, could not have been more clear about what might qualify as a “loyal” verdict.

Over the next six years, the case of Sacco and Vanzetti drew the world’s attention. As the execution date neared, workers in the United States and Europe protested vigorously. On August 7, 1927 hundreds of thousands of American workers threw down their tools and walked off their jobs. Appeals for clemency and motions for new trials had come to naught. The governor of Massachusetts appointed a commission to assess the fairness of the trial, though its conclusions were all but preordained. The United States Supreme Court declined to intervene.

As for the condemned themselves, they spent the last months of their lives writing letters to family, friends and supporters. In one of the most memorable of these, Nicola Sacco wrote to his daughter Ines:
I would like that you should understand what I am going to say to you, and I wish I could write you so plain, for I long so much to have you hear all the heart-beat, eagemess of your father, for I love you so much as you are the dearest little beloved one.

It is quite hard indeed to make you understand in your young age, but I am going to try from the bottom of my heart to make you understand how dear you are to your father's soul. If I cannot succeed in doing that, I know that you will save this letter and read it over in future years to come and you will see and feel the same heart-beat [of] affection as your father feels in writing it to you.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

August 22

The War of the Roses, a three-decade armed struggle over the English crown, came to a bloody end on this date in 1485 as King Richard III lost both the throne and his life at Bosworth Field. Richard, the last of the Plantagenet kings, headed the House of York; he was opposed in battle by Henry Tudor, who represented the rival House of Lancaster, which laid tenuous -- though ultimately successful -- claims to the kingdom. Joined by several thousand French soldiers, Henry landed at Milford Haven (Wales) in early August and marched eastward toward Leicestershire, where on August 22 his forces routed the king in less than two hours.

According to the Chronicles of Jean Molinet, a French historian whose account of the battle appeared around 1490
The king bore himself valiantly according to his destiny, and wore the crown on his head; but when he saw this discomfiture and found himself alone on the field he thought to run after the others. His horse leapt into a march from which it could not retrieve itself. One of the Welshmen then came after him, and struck him dead with a halberd, and another took his body and put it before him on his horse and carried it, hair hanging as one would bear a sheep.

And so he who miserably killed numerous people, ended his days iniquitously and filthily in the dirt and mire, and he who had despoiled churches was displayed to the people naked and without any clothing, and without any royal solemnity was buried at the entrance to a village church.
The church, known as Greyfriars, was destroyed during the English Reformation. Legend has it that Richard’s body was tossed into the River Soar, though it seems more likely that the body was not disturbed. In that case, the remains of Richard III now lie sealed under a parking lot.

Last year's post: Nat Turner revolt


Tuesday, August 21, 2007

August 21

Today marks the 65th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad, which began with Luftwaffe
raids over the city on August 21, 1942. During the six months that followed, more than 1.5 million soldiers and civilians perished, as Stalingrad itself was reduced to rubble and ash. The battle became the turning point in the European war, as the German drive eastward was halted. While some 10,000 German troops hid in the sewers and wreckage -- waging a futile guerilla campaign that lasted another year -- nearly 100,000 more surrendered, of whom barely 6000 eventually survived the war. The rest were shipped to Soviet labor camps, where they were undone by disease, malnutrition and overwork.

Nearly two decades later, the pointless waste of human life continued in Southeast Asia. Throughout much of 1963, Buddhists openly defied the US-backed South Vietnamese regime of Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem, an autocratic and deeply paranoid Catholic, believed the Buddhists were in league with the Communists, against whom the Saigon government had been waging civil war for more than three years. Street demonstrations and self-immolations -- most famously that of Thich Quang Duc in June 1963 -- had persuaded Diem that his leadership was imperiled; discontent within the South Vietnamese Army did not help the matter, as Diem convinced himself that his forces might not be willing to repel an attack against him.

Shortly after midnight on August 21, South Vietnamese special forces executed raids against Buddhist temples in Saigon, Da Nang, Hkanhhoa and Hue, arresting and killing hundreds of monks and nuns in a crackdown that exposed both the fragility and the brutality of the Diem government. Bearing shotguns, carbines and submachine guns, combat police trashed the Xa Loi pagoda in Saigon and the Tu Dam and Dieu De pagodas in Hue. At Xa Loi, government forces absconded with the heart of Thich Quang Duc; at Tu Dam, soldiers stole $30,000 from the temple treasury while making off with the coffin of a priest who had also burnt himself to death in protest against Diem.

By morning, the country was in a state of uproar. Taking to the airwaves, President Diem declared martial law:
Under Article 44 of the constitution, I declare a state of siege throughout the national territory. I confer upon the army of the Republic of Viet Nam the responsibility to restore security and public order so that the state may be protected, Communism defeated, freedom secured, and democracy achieved.
Over the next few weeks, thousands of Buddhists were arrested and tortured. The anti-Buddhist crackdown was the beginning of the end for Diem, who was assassinated ten weeks later.

Within a year after the August 1963 raids, the United States had successfully fabricated a pretext for a more elaborate intervention in South Vietnam.

Monday, August 20, 2007

August 20

On this date in 1986, 44-year-old Patrick Henry Sherrill -- a surly, part-time mail carrier from Edmond, Oklahoma -- killed fourteen co-workers in an episode that solidified the reputation of the US Postal Service as a cauldron of workplace violence. Known to many as “Crazy Pat,” Sherrill had failed at nearly every venture in his life before the Edmund Massacre. A poor student, he had made several unsuccessful attempts at college; a stint in the Marines ended with a general discharge but nothing in the way of a career. He did, however, distinguish himself as an expert with a pistol.

After his time with the Marines, Sherrill returned to live with his mother in Oklahoma, where a series of odd jobs kept Sherrill afloat while his odd behavior and unpleasant demeanor resulted in one dismissal after another. During the years leading up to the mass murder for which he would become famous, Sherrill’s conduct was nothing short of disturbing. The least worrisome of his quirks included his habit of mowing the lawn in the middle of the night; less endearing was his compulsion to peer in his neighbors’ windows and steal their dogs, which he then pitted in fights against his pit bull.

On August 19, 1986, Sherrill’s supervisors -- Bill Bland and Rick Esser -- reprimanded him. Sherrill, who had been written up twice and suspended earlier in the year, had been complaining to fellow employees for weeks, insisting that Bland and Esser were looking to fire him. To one co-worker, Sherrill ominously remarked that “they’ll be sorry everyone would know.”

The next day, Sherrill brought two semi-automatic .45 pistols and a .22 to work. After locking the door behind him, he began shooting everyone in sight. Within 15 minutes, “Crazy Pat” had taken fourteen lives and wounded a half dozen more before ending the spree with a bullet to his own head. Rick Esser was indeed numbered among the dead; Bill Bland, however, overslept and was not in the office when Patrick Sherrill arrived.

True to its legendary persistence, the Post Office in Edmund -- scrubbed and emptied of the dead and wounded -- opened for business the next morning.



Saturday, August 18, 2007

August 18

In his vivid and at times salacious diary, Johann Burchard of Strasburg records a most gruesome scene at the funeral of Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia), whose innards -- scorched by the dreaded Roman fever -- almost literally melted on this date in 1503.

After more than a week of intestinal bleeding and convulsive fevers, the pope’s skin began to peel off while his stomach distended horribly. After accepting last rites and confessing some of his many sins, the despairing Alexander expired. According to Burchard, Bishop of Orta and Master of Ceremonies to a succession of late 15th and early 16th century popes, Alexander’s was “the ugliest, most monstrous and horrible dead body that was ever seen, without any form or likeness of humanity.” Writing in his Liber Notarum, Burchard elaborates:
The face was very dark, the colour of a dirty rag or a mulberry, and was covered all over with bruise-coloured marks. The nose was swollen; the tongue had bent over in the mouth, completely double, and was pushing out the lips which were, themselves, swollen. The mouth was open and so ghastly that people who saw it said they had never seen anything like it before.
The rest of the body, quickly bloating with gas, doubled to an unmanageable size, and Burchard himself was compelled to swaddle the corpse in an old carpet and throw himself atop the bundle in a vain effort to wedge it into the undersized coffin. Only four prelates attended his funeral services. Loathed by his colleagues, Alexander VI -- whose venality and rakish morals were extraordinary even by the low standards of the Renaissance papacy -- was initially refused burial at St. Peter’s Basilica, and his remains were eventually expelled from the papal crypt and lie now in the Spanish national church of Santa Maria di Monserrato.

Whatever else we might say about the demise of Alexander IV, the manner of his passing would appear to be somewhat less than he actually deserved. Renowned as one of the worst popes ever, Alexander VI issued one of the three most significant papal bulls of the fifteenth century, each of which elaborated what became known as the “doctrine of discovery.” Building on the precedents of Dum diversas (which in authorized Portugal in 1452 to reduce African “unbelievers” to slavery) and Romanus pontifex (which commanded the Catholic nations to invade and dominate new lands, wresting them from Saracens, pagans, and other “enemies of Christ”), Inter caetera effectively “donated” the Western Hemisphere to Spain in May 1493, extending papal blessings to the wholesale conquest of the Americas. As Alexander explained,
[w]e trust in Him from whom empires and governments and all good things proceed, that, should you, with the Lord's guidance, pursue this holy and praiseworthy undertaking, in a short while your hardships and endeavors will attain the most felicitous result, to the happiness and glory of all Christendom.
A year ago ago, the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues issued an appeal to Pope Benedict XVI to rescind all three pillars of the “doctrine of discovery,” including the Inter caetera of Alexander VI. Thus far, the Vatican has neither replied to the appeal nor acknowledged its receipt, in keeping with its traditional silence toward such requests from indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere.

This is a re-post of last year's entry

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Friday, August 17, 2007

August 17

Today is the anniversary of what was arguably the most famous lynching in US history.

On August 17, 1915, Leo Frank -- a Jewish pencil store manager from Atlanta -- was kidnapped from a Georgia prison farm and driven 150 miles to a spot just outside Marietta, where the 31-year-old man was strung from a tree. Frank had been convicted the previous year of a murder that he almost certainly did not commit; originally sentenced to die for the rape and strangulation of a young factory employee named Mary Phagan, Frank successfully appealed to Governor John M. Slaton for a commutation. Enraged (as many white Georgians were) by the commutation, a group of roughly 30 men who called themselves the Knights of Mary Phegan took matters into their own hands.

The crime, trial and subsequent lynching were seminal moments in the history of the New South. Frank’s trial had been a disgusting, racist spectacle, as the undisguised anti-Semitism of the prosecution was matched beat for beat by the insinuations of the defense lawyers, who insisted that only a black man would have been capable of such a brutal crime against the flower of white womanhood. After Slaton issued his commutation, Tom Watson -- Georgia’s most famous racist demagogue -- explicitly called for Frank’s extrajudicial killing. In a deranged rant published in his magazine, the Jeffersonian, Watson wrote that:
Our grand old Empire State HAS BEEN RAPED!

We have been violated, AND WE ARE ASHAMED! . . . .

The great Seal of the State has gone, LIKE A THIEF IN THE NIGHT, to do for an unscrupulous law firm, a deed of darkness which dared not bask in the light of the sun.

We have been betrayed! The breath of some leprous monster has passed over us, and we feel like crying out, in horror and despair,

Unclean! UNCLEAN!
Watson concluded that “Jew money has debased us, bought us, and sold us -- and laughs at us.” Agreeing with Watson that “lynch law” is “better than no law at all,” the Knights of Mary Phagan -- which included a former governor, a state legislator, the former and current mayors of Marietta, as well as other prominent lawyers and businessmen -- cleansed their “Empire” by administering the only form of law they truly respected.

Among other things, the lynching of Leo Frank -- which took place the same year as the release of Birth of a Nation -- helped inspire the rejuvenation of the Ku Klux Klan.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

August 16

On this date in 1819, five dozen saber-bearing cavalrymen -- many of them loaded with drink -- charged a crowd of demonstrators in Manchester, initiating one of the most notorious acts of political suppression in English history. Out of a crowd of 50-80,000, hundreds of people were injured and between eleven and eighteen killed.

The “Peterloo Massacre,” as it came to be known, occurred at St. Peter’s Field during a mass meeting organized by the Manchester Patriotic Union Society. The Manchester radicals were among the many groups calling for such innovations as universal suffrage and a repeal of the corn laws, which -- by taxing imported corn and encouraging the expansion of domestic wheat farming -- had driven the price of bread skyward. Working people, -- crushed by the escalating cost of food and denied corresponding wage increases -- were infuriated, and after the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, unrest rippled throughout the country.

The Manchester Patriotic Union Society, formed in March 1819, invited a group of notable English radicals to speak on August 16. Among them were Richard Carlile, a newspaper publisher, and Henry “Orator” Hunt, a gentleman-turned-radical whose nickname attested to his forensic skills. Local magistrates, wary of the gathering, enlisted hundreds of young men from the local yeoman cavalry along with “special constables” and infantrymen. Their official task was to guard against the outbreak of violence, imagined as always to emanate from the ranks of the lower sorts; their unofficial role, of course, was to ensure that the meeting did not establish a precedent by ending successfully.

In the early afternoon -- just as Hunt was preparing to speak -- the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry were ordered to disperse the crowd and arrest its leaders. Samuel Bamford, a weaver and political radical, was among those arrested at St. Peter’s field. He served a year in Ilchester Gaol, after which he wrote one of the most important eyewitness accounts of the massacre. As Bamford explained,
the cavalry were in confusion: they evidently could not, with all the weight of man and horse, penetrate that compact mass of human beings and their sabres were plied to hew a way through naked held-up hands and defenceless heads; and then chopped limbs and wound-gaping skulls were seen; and groans and cries were mingled with the din of that horrid confusion . . . .

In ten minutes from the commencement of the havoc the field was an open and almost deserted space. The sun looked down througha sultry and motionless air. The curtains and blinds of the windows within view were all closed. A gentleman or two might occasionally be seen looking out from one of the new houses before mentioned, near the door of which a group of persons (special constables) were collected, and apparently in conversation; others were assisting the wounded or carrying off the dead. The hustings remained, with a few broken and hewed flag-staves erect, and a torn and gashed banner or two dropping; whilst over the whole field were strewed caps, bonnets, hats, shawls, and shoes, and other parts of male and female dress, trampled, torn, and bloody.
In the aftermath of the massacre at St. Peter’s Field, the English Parliament issued the so-called Six Acts, which suppressed public meetings, enhanced penalties for “blasphemous and seditious libel,” and restricted press freedoms by placing heavier taxes on newspapers, pamphlets and periodicals.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

August 14

Today is the 71st anniversary of the last public execution in the United States. On 14 August 1936, Rainey Bethea was hanged by the neck before a crowd of 20,000 gawkers in Owensboro, Kentucky. The 22-year-old Bethea had been convicted earlier that summer in the drunken murder of 70-year-old Lischia Edwards, whom he had raped and strangled in her own bedroom on June 7.

At 5:32 a.m. on August 14, Bethea ascended the scaffold wearing a clean pair of socks. He had not eaten breakfast, but was likely still full from the fried chicken, pork chops, mashed potatoes, cornbread, pickles, lemon pie and ice cream he had requested for his last meal more than 12 hours earlier. Spectators had begun arriving in the middle of the night and jostled for position as Rainey’s head was draped in a black hood and his arms and legs bound with leather straps. The executioner, who was more than a little drunk, had to be told more than once to pull the lever and end the life of Rainey Bethea.

Fourteen minutes after his neck snapped at the end of an eight-foot rope, Bethea was officially declared dead. His body was dumped into a pauper’s grave in Owensboro. Press coverage of the execution was almost unanimously critical, as reporters described -- and embellished -- scenes of unflattering public enthusiasm. A headline in the Philadelphia Record announced that “[The crowd] Ate Hot Dogs While a Man Died on the Gallows.” In the Louisville Courier-Journal described a crowd that cheered with delight when Bethea’s neck snapped/
Souvenir hunters ripped the hangman's hood from Bethea's face immediately after his body dropped. Bethea still breathed when a few persons from the crowd rushed the four-foot wire inclosure [sic] about the scaffold and scrambled for fragments as mementoes.

People stood on roofs, hung from telephone poles, leaned out windows, stood on automobiles. One group took possession of the roof of a hearse waiting for Bethea's body. Many children, including babies were carried on the shoulders of their parents. It ought to be a lesson to them.

The condemned man ‘appeared to be serious but calm.' Naturally, he didn't enter in the spirit of gaiety. He couldn't look forward to entertaining his friends with a recital of the adventure and boring them thereafter with it for the remainder of his days. It was a serious event in Bethea's life. It was a serious event in the life of Kentucky, too, as the morbid enjoyment of that curious throng attests.
As it happened, Bethea took at least one other person with him. About an hour before the execution, a man named Leonard Peters -- rushing with his wife and another couple from Evanston to Owensboro -- was killed in an accident when he drove his vehicle into a ditch. Peters’ wife and friends survived, though one presumes they did not make it to Owensboro in time for the hanging.



Monday, August 13, 2007

August 13

For Catholics, today marks the annual feast of St. Cassian, a teacher of young boys who was beaten and stabbed to death by his own students more than 1600 years ago. Cassian, who had previously served as Bishop of Brescia, was driven from his diocese during the persecutions that had commenced either during the reign of the neo-pagan Emperor Julian (around the year 360) or during the Diocletian persecutions roughly seven decades earlier. Relocated in the city of Imola, Cassian found a new calling as a teacher, a profession he believed could help bring new souls into the Church.

Unhappily for Cassian, he was before long denounced as a Christian and hauled before the governor, who insisted that he offer sacrifice to gods in whom he did not believe. Meeting with Cassian’s stout refusal, the governor sentenced him to be executed by his own students. According to Alban Butler’s Lives of the the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints (1866)
He was exposed naked in the midst of two hundred boys; among whom some threw their tablets, pencils, and penknives at his face and head, and often broke them upon his body; others cut his flesh or stabbed him with their pencils, sometimes only tearing the skin and flesh, and sometimes raking in his very bowels. Some made it their barbarous sport to cut part of their [assignment] in his tender skin. Thus, covered with his own blood, and wounded in every part of his body, he cheerfully bade his little executioners not to be afraid; and to strike him with greater force . . .
In death, Cassian became the patron saint of shorthand -- a skill he taught to his students before they pecked him to death.

Centuries later, Cassian would also be recognized as the patron saint of Mexico City. Known to the Mexica empire as Tenochtitlan, this enormous and sophisticated urban complex was home to hundreds of thousands of people when Spanish troops under Hernan Cortes -- aided by several hundred thousand warriors from disgruntled tribes from within the empire -- surrounded it in May 1521. Culled by a smallpox epidemic and forced into starvation by the 80-day siege, the survivors were eventually reduced to eating wood, leather, and bricks. According to a poem written during the last days of Tenochtitlan,
Broken spears lie in the roads;
We have torn our hair in our grief
The houses are roofless now, and their walls
Are red with blood.

Worms are swarming in the streets and plazas,
And the walks are spattered with gore
The water has turned red, as if it were dyed
And when we drink it,
It has the taste of brine

We have pounded our hands in despair
Against the adobe walls,
For our inheritance, our city, is lost and dead
The shields of our warriors were its defense.
But they could not save it.

We have chewed dry twigs and salt grasses:
We have filled our mouths with dust and bits of adobe.
We have eaten lizards, rats and worms
When we had meat, we ate it almost raw.
By the time the city fell to Spanish on August 13, 1521, as many as 250,000 Aztecs had perished. Cuauhtémoc, the last ruler of the Mexican empire, was captured during an attempt to escape the city. Handing Hernan Cortes ahis knife and asking to be killed, he surrendered Tenochtitlan to the European invaders. Rather than fulfill Cuauhtémoc’s request, Cortes instead tortured him, demanding to know where the empire’s treasure was hidden. Although Cuauhetemoc’s feet were roasted over an open flame, he did not satisfy Cortes’ demands.

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Friday, August 10, 2007

August 10

Two days after members of his “family” disposed of the lives of Sharon Tate and three others, Charles Manson tagged along for the last of the murders perpetrated in his name. On August 10, 1969, Manson and his accomplices broke in to the home of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, whom they killed with a bayonet and steak knives. After the couple were dead, their blood was used to scrawl “death to pigs,” “healter skelter” [sic] and other insanities across the walls and appliances of their home.

Leno LaBianca’s body was scrawled with the word “WAR, ” which presumably referred to the deranged eschatology of the Manson cult. Believing that the Biblical book of Revelation and the Beatles’ White Album offered clues to an impending social catastrophe, Manson insisted that his followers had been called by God to provoke a race war, during which blacks would exterminate all non-racist whites -- only to be ruled in the end by the Manson Family. Needless to say, the plan had its flaws.

Eight years after the LaBianca murders, David Berkowitz, the notorious “Son of Sam,” was arrested in New York City, where over the previous year he had shot a dozen people with a .44 handgun. Six of his victims died. About two months before his capture, Berkowitz wrote a famous letter to New York Daily News reporter Jimmy Breslin, who covered the murders and the hunt for “Sam” throughout the summer of 1977. In the note, Berkowitz mused on the virtues of urban life
Hello from the gutters of N.Y.C. which are filled with dog manure, vomit, stale wine, urine, and blood. Hello from the sewer of N.Y.C. which swallow up these delicacies when they are washed away by the sweeper trucks. Hello from the cracks in the sidewalks of N.Y.C. and from the ants that dwell in these cracks and feed on the dried blood of the dead that has settled into the cracks.
After confessing to the murders, Berkowitz received six consecutive life sentences; Charles Manson, who had originally been sentenced to die in the gas chambers, eventually received a life sentence as well when the US Supreme Court struck down California’s death penalty statute in 1972.

On the fourth anniversary of Berkowitz’ capture, the head of Adam Walsh -- a six-year-old boy from Hollywood, Florida -- was discovered in a Vero Beach canal. He had been taken from a mall two weeks earlier after his mother left him in a video arcade while she shopped at Sears. The rest of his body was never recovered. Walsh’s father, John, became an advocate for missing children, hosting America’s Most Wanted and urging the passage of harsh criminal statutes to protect “victim’s rights.”

The LaBianca murders, the arrest of Berkowitz, and this discovery of Adam Walsh’s head each took place on the feast of Saint Lawrence; Lawrence was grilled to death by the Romans in the year 258.

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Thursday, August 09, 2007

August 9

On 9 August 1945, a handful of US aircraft -- one of which carried an atomic weapon known as the “Fat Man” -- circled the Japanese city of Kokura, seven hours after lifting off from Tinian Island in the Northern Marianas. Kokura had been designated as the primary target for the second nuclear attack in human history, which would occur a mere three days after the first; fortunately for Kokura’s residents, a 40-minute delay midway through its flight prevented the armed Superfortress from arriving during clear weather. After three fruitless passes over the city, the crew of the Bockscar, having been ordered not to release their horrific payload unless they could visualize the target, moved on to its secondary destination at Nagasaki.

Clouds obscured that city as well. Without a break in the weather, the mission would have been truncated and “Fat Man” dumped into the Pacific. Shortly before noon, the clouds over Nagasaki parted momentarily. At 11:02 a.m., Kermit Beahan, bombardier for the Bockscar, celebrated his 27th birthday by releasing a weapon that -- 46 seconds later -- obliterated roughly 70,000 people and injured tens of thousands more. “The target was there,” Beahan later explained, “pretty as a picture. I made the run, let the bomb go. That was my greatest thrill.”

Less ebullient about the day’s events was Senji Yamaguchi, a fourteen-year-old boy who was digging a bomb shelter at the Mistubishi plant near the epicenter of the blast. Yamaguchi, who would later found one of the first organizations for atomic survivors, endured tremendous pain as he recovered at a naval hospital in Omura.
I was in a large room that had forty beds, but people were dying one after another, at a rate of four or five per day. I'd hear someone whisper, 'It looks like another one died,' followed by the rattling sound of a bed being pulled away. Then I would hear someone crying and I'd know for sure that another person had died. As my own wounds were on my head, from the face to the neck and upper body, I had many layers of bandages that had to be changed over and over. The pain I had when they would peel off two or three layers was so great that I couldn't think straight. By the time they came to wrapping on the new bandages, I had lost all my strength and felt like an empty shell. For about two hours I would be screaming because it was so painful, and then it would be time for another treatment. This was repeated over and over again. The gauze had been soaked in Lybanol and when it dried it would shrink up, forcing the burnt flesh up through the holes in the mesh. The treatment from the nurses at the naval hospital was rough. They would grab the edge of the gauze with tweezers and rip it right off, causing so much pain that I cried out, 'Just kill me!' over and over. Just hearing the call 'Treatment!' was enough to start some of the patients crying. If there was some way that experience could be replayed, exactly as it was and without hiding anything, I would really like everyone to see what it was like.
Twenty-four years after Yamaguchi was nearly incinerated, four members of Charles Manson’s “family” murdered Sharon Tate, Wojciech Frykowski, Abigail Folger, Jay Sebring and Steve Parent. The five were killed at 10050 Cielo Drive in Los Angeles -- a house that had once been the home of actress Lillian Gish, whose opposition to US entry into World War II nearly ruined her career.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

August 7

During the first week of August 1933, Kurdish paramilitaries -- acting at the behest of the Iraqi government -- slaughtered thousands of Assyrians in the northern districts of Dohuk and Mosul. The massacres, which peaked on August 7, were prompted by Iraqi fears that armed Assyrian forces might provoke a general uprising against the government; those fears turned out to be unsubstantiated, yet the broader Assyrian desire for autonomy proved fatal, as the government of Iraq responded in a manner reminiscent of the Ottoman genocide carried out against the Armenians during World War I.

In an appeal filed with the League of Nations, the Assyrian Patriarch Mar Eshai Shimun XXI wrote that
[m]en, women and children were massacred wholesale most barbarously by rifle, revolver and machine gun fire. Groups of Assyrians were tied up with ropes and shot down by the regular an irregular troops of the Iraq army. The Ministers of Interior and Defence and other high officials were a few miles away from the massacre zone. Priests were killed and their bodies mutilated. Assyrian women were violated and killed. Priests and Assyrian young men were killed instantly after refusing forced conversion to Muhammadanism. The rapacious Arabs who were armed and instigated by the Arab officials received their instructions from the central authorities carried away the cattle and belongings of the Assyrians with impunity. Holy books were destroyed and Assyrian villages set on fire. Assyrian children whilst hanging on to their parents who were being driven to the butcheries were shot dead. Pregnant women had their wombs cut and their babies destroyed.
Reading about these latest atrocities, a Polish-born lawyer named Raphael Lemkin recalled the mass killing of Armenians carried out by the Ottoman Empire at the close of World War I. As he struggled to comprehend the historical novelty of these mass murders, Lemkin wrote an essay in which he urged the international community to take action against “acts of barbarity,” among which he included “acts of extermination” carried out against religious, social and ethnic “collectivities.” A decade later, as European Jews like himself were being disposed of in enormous quantities, Lemkin later coined the term “genocide” to describe these very “acts of extermination.”

A little more than three decades after the Assyrian catastrophe, the United States Congress passed a broad resolution authorizing Lyndon Johnson to “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression” in Southeast Asia. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, as it was called, was passed by a nearly unanimous vote on August 7, 1964. It was premised, as Americans came to understand much later, on false claims by the Johnson administration that US naval ships had been attacked without provocation by North Vietnamese gunboats; in truth, American ships had been participating in covert operations -- including surveillance, “team insertion” and sabotage -- for several years.

With the Tonkin resolution in hand, Johnson’s administration soon initiated massive airstrikes against the North. Within a year, several hundred thousand US ground forces had been delivered to South Vietnam.

Wayne Morse of Oregon, one of only two Senators to vote against the authorization, predicted that
history will record that we have made a great mistake in subverting and circumventing the Constitution of the United States. . . I believe this resolution to be a historic mistake. I believe that within the next century, future generations will look with dismay and great disappointment upon a Congress which is now about to make such a historic mistake.
When Morse sought for re-election in 1968, his opposition to the American War in Vietnam helped cost him his seat.

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Monday, August 06, 2007

August 6

William Kimmler, a vegetable salesman from Buffalo, hacked his wife to death with an axe, a crime for which he became the first person to die in the electric chair. The execution, which took place at Auburn Prison on August 6, 1890, turned out to be a horrific spectacle lasting much longer than anyone had predicted. Kimmler himself assumed his death would be -- as advocates for the method like Thomas Edison assured -- humane and instantaneous. Edison and others had had electrocuted dozens of dogs and cats using various contraptions. Prison officials had tested the chair on a horse on August 5, and everything seemed to go well.

Less could be said for the actual execution the next day, as the initial 17-second application of current, did not snuff out Kimmler’s life. Albert Southwick, the dentist who first proposed the notion of an electric chair in 1881, was on hand for the historic event and expressed premature elation after the first surge. “There is the culmination of ten years work and study!” he ejaculated. “We live in a higher civilization from this day.” When doctors discovered that Kimmler was still breathing, they quickly ordered an additional four-minute surge of 2000 volts, the effect of which was to bake the man literally to a crisp, as his skin caught fire and smoke poured from his head.

The New York Herald filed a dramatic report on the incident:
The killing of Kemmler to-day marks, I fear, the beginning and the end of electrocution, and it wreathes in shame the ages of the great Empire State who, entrusted with the terrific responsibility of killing a man as a man was never killed before, brought to the task imperfect machinery and turned and execution into a horror . . . .

Man accustomed to every form of suffering grew faint as the awful spectacle was unfolded before their eyes. Those who stood the sight were filled with awe as they saw the effects of this most potent of fluids which is only partly understood by those who have studied it most faithfully, as it slowly, to slowly, disintegrated the fibre and tissues of the body through which it passed.

The heaving of a chest which it had been promised would be stilled in an instant peace as soon as the circuit was completed, the foaming of the mouth, the bloody sweat, the writhing shoulders and all the other signs of life.

Horrible as these were they were made infinitely more horrible by the premature removal of the electrodes and the subsequent replacing of them for not seconds but minutes, until the room was filled with the odor of burning flesh and strong man fainted and felt like logs upon the floor.

And all this done in the name of science.
Fifty-five years later, another deadly scientific advance was used for the first time. On August 6, 1945, “Little Boy” was dropped from the belly of a B-29 named the Enola Gay. The 4000 kilogram bomb -- 64 kilograms of which was enriched uranium from the Belgian Congo -- sailed quietly through the sky for 57 seconds before obliterating the Japanese city of Hiroshima and at least 70,000 people who lived and worked there. Tens of thousands more would later die from burns, radiation poisoning, and cancers of numerous and unpleasant kinds.

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Friday, August 03, 2007

August 3

Jonas Savimbi, leader of one of numerous terrorist organizations funded and supplied by the US during the Cold War, was born on this date in 1934.

Trained in Maoist guerilla tactics by the Chinese military during the early 1960s, Savimbi shuttled between several anti-colonial resistance movements, all of which sought to expel the Portugese from Angola, the land they had begun to colonize five centuries before. When Angolan independence came in 1975, Savimbi’s group -- the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) -- joined the struggle for power as the country quickly descended into a civil war. By 1976, UNITA had been more or less defeated by the Soviet-backed Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).

Driven into the bush, UNITA continued the war. Rejuvenated by hundreds of millions of dollars in covert funds from the CIA, UNITA laid waste to the nation’s agricultural regions, kidnapped and conscripted children, laid mines along public roads, and publicly roasted women accused of witchcraft. Over time, many of Savimbi’s associates met with grisly ends.

Backed by the United States, South Africa, Israel and a host of other rightist African allies, Savimbi was hailed by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush as a “freedom fighter,” in spite of his extraordinary personal ego and his apparent disinterest in the emergence of actual democracy in Angola. Among Savimbi’s staunch defenders and promoters was a young activist named Jack Abramoff. Abramoff, who worked at the time for a conservative group known as Citizens for America, organized a 1985 “summit” of “freedom fighters” in Jamba, Angola; due in part to Abramoff’s efforts, the Reagan administration offered greater sums of covert aid to extend the violence. Meantime, the Soviet Union did its part as well to export the Cold War’s bloodshed far from its own soil, providing billions of dollars in military assistance to the MPLA.

When the Cold War evaporated and the Angolan civil war was halted long enough to hold free elections, Savimbi waged a campaign for president. When he lost in 1992, Savimbi refused to accept the results and resumed his guerilla war against the MPLA. Deprived of support from the US, he turned instead to revenues acquired from diamond, smuggled to Europe through Namibia, Rwanda, and other nations. Meantime, nations like Russia and Portugal -- who were supposed to be helping mediate a truce to the war -- shipped weapons to the Angolan government, prolonging the conflict in their own right.

While roughly ten percent of the country’s population was displaced, thousands of Angolans died in subsequent fighting -- the last of 500-600,000 who perished in Africa’s longest post-colonial conflict. Committed to the bitter end, UNITA shelled cities like Malanje and Kuito, causing hundreds of civilian casualties.

Jonas Savimbi himself eventually became one of those casualties, shot at least fifteen times in the head during a February 2002 ambush in Moxico, Angola. His death brought jubilant celebrations in Luanda, the nation’s capital.

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Thursday, August 02, 2007

August 2

Warren Harding, one of the most worthless presidents in American history, sloughed off his mortal coil on this date in 1923, succumbing to heart disease during a trip to the West Coast.

Harding had not been an especially great candidate for the president, but he was a laissez-faire Republican who was regarded by business leaders as compliant, and old guard party leaders supported him because he seemed like a man who would take instructions without complaint. His ham-fisted command of the English language was legendary. Boies Penrose, head of Pennsylvania Republican machine, once begged Harding’s aides to “keep Warren at home. Don’t let him make any speeches. If he goes out on a tour somebody’s sure to ask him questions, and Warren’s just the sort of damned fool that will try to answer them.” On the view of William McAdoo -- himself a failed contender for the Democratic nomination in 1920 -- Harding’s speeches “leave the impression of an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea; sometimes these meandering words would actually capture a straggling thought and bear it triumphantly, a prisoner in their midst, until it died of servitude and overwork.”

A likable but stupid man, Harding rarely worked during his two years in office, spending much of his time golfing and inviting political cronies to the White House for poker games. He often seemed puzzled by the office of President, and so he allowed his political boosters in the Republican Party and his corporate friends from Ohio to have a free hand in shaping policy. As his own father once remarked in a letter, if Harding were a woman “you’d be in a family way all the time. You can’t say No.”

Harding’s administration was among the most corrupt in American history. The head of Veteran’s Administration, Charles Forbes, was imprisoned for two years for accepting kickbacks and for organizing illegal drug and alcohol rackets. An aide to Forbes, Charles Cramer, committed suicide before his own indictment could be issued. A member of the Justice Department also killed himself; he had been selling liquor licenses and paroles. The worst of Harding’s scandals, however, was not fully disclosed until after his death. As part of the infamous Teapot Dome scandal, oil companies bribed Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall, offering him $404,000 in exchange for cheap oil leases on federal land.

After Harding’s body was returned to Washington and placed in the East Room of the White House, his wife Florence was observed at his side, speaking softly to him for over an hour. She herself died a year later. Years afterward, rumors began to circulate that Florence Harding had poisoned her husband -- revenge for his numerous extramarital affairs.



Wednesday, August 01, 2007

August 1

On this date in 1492 -- two days before Christopher Columbus commenced his first voyage to the Western Hemisphere -- Spain’s unconverted Jewish population lost its right to remain in the kingdom of Ferdinand and Isabella. According to the edict issued by the crown in late April, malingering Jews would be sentenced to death by hanging. According to the memoirs of an Italian Jew writing in 1495, Isabella was approached at the last minute by the Prior of Santa Cruz, who objected to the expulsion and pleaded with her to reconsider. The queen, unmoved, replied that
"The king's heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water. God turneth it withersoever He will." She said furthermore: "Do you believe that this comes upon you from us? The Lord hath put this thing into the heart of the king."

Then they saw that there was evil determined against them by the King, and they gave up the hope of remaining. But the time had become short, and they had to hasten their exodus from Spain. They sold their houses, their landed estates, and their cattle for very small prices, to save themselves. The King did not allow them to carry silver and gold out of his country, so that they were compelled to exchange their silver and gold for merchandise of cloths and skins and other things
On August 1, 1933, Adolf Eichmann began training with an illegal paramilitary group known as the Austrian Legion. Nine years later, on August 1, 1942, Eichmann -- by then a captain and “Transportation Administer” in the SS -- ordered that all Belgian Jews be loaded onto trains destined for Auschwitz, Poland. That very day, Gerhart Reigner, director of the Geneva office of the World Jewish Congress, received a secret telegram from Germany detailing the use of Zyklon B gas in the numerous camps to which expelled Jews were being delivered. When Reigner passed word of the Final Solution to the United States Department of State, his reports were suppressed for months for fear that “interested groups” might demand action.

It is entirely possible that while Reigner stared in disbelief at the August 1 telegram, Anne Frank was composing the last sentence of her remarkable diary:
When everybody starts hovering over me, I get cross, then sad, and finally end up turning my heart inside out, the bad part on the outside and the good part on the inside, and keep trying to find a way to become what I’d like to be and what I could be if . . . if only there were no other people in the world.
Meir Kahane, racist founder of the Jewish Defense League and the terrorist Kach Party in Israel, celebrated his tenth birthday on 1 August 1942. Kahane, a New Yorker who emigrated to Israel in 1971, believed Arabs to be “strangers” in the Holy Land and advised that only their cleansing from Eretz Israel would assure his nation’s survival. On the subject of terrorism, Kahane wrote in 1979 that
[w]e cannot allow the situation to continue. Every victim is a beloved one who leaves behind loved ones and sorrow and tragedy. Every victim is a fellow Jew. Every death and outrage is a Hillul Hashem, a desecration of the name of the L-rd, G-d of Israel. Our apathy, our acceptance of the situation, only guarantees further and worse inflation of terror. It guarantees further deaths, cripples, and agony and anguish. It cannot continue, and it must as long as Arabs are allowed to live and wander freely in the Land. The solution is ultimately only one: The removal of the hostile and dangerous Arab minority from the Land of Israel . . . .
On 1 August 1967, Israel annexed East Jerusalem, contravening the Fourth Geneva Convention. Five thousand Arab residents were driven from the city, their homes destroyed to improve security access to the Wailing Wall.

This is a re-post of last year's entry

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