Thursday, March 27, 2008

March 27

On this date in 1814, the Battle of Horseshoe Bend occurred on a peninsula of the Tallapoosa River, located in what would soon be the state of Alabama. The five-hour ordeal pitted a contingent of 1000 Upper Creek warriors -- known as “Red Sticks” -- against the West Tennessee Militia, the 39th United States Infantry, and an complement of Cherokee and Lower Creek (“White Stick”) fighters, all of whom answered to the command of General Andrew Jackson.

The origins of the battle were complicated. The Creek, unlike their Cherokee or Choctaw neighbors, were a loose confederation rather than a distinct political and cultural entity; as white settlement and influence extended further and further into the old Southwest, divisions emerged among the Creek villages over the question of how much resistance should be offered against white encroachments. The so-called Lower Creek -- known as “White Sticks” -- tended to adopt a more accommodationist stance. Meanwhile, certain factions of the Upper Creek -- also known as “Red Sticks” -- urged a more forceful response.. Influenced by a pan-Indian political and spiritual revival that had swept down from the Ohio Valley over the previous years, the Red Sticks tended to regard many of their fellow Creeks as spineless collaborators who had adopted too much of the European-American culture.

By 1813, the United States and Britain had entered into a war with each other, and the Creek had become enmeshed in a civil conflict. For a while, the Red Sticks maintained an upper hand in the fight; they conquered and sacked numerous Lower Creek towns in an effort to destroy all vestiges of white influence in the region. In August 1813, Red Sticks killed hundreds of Lower Creek who had taken refuge under American protection at Ft. Mims, located North of Mobile. Though most of the victims at Ft. Mims were Indian, the episode sent the region into a complete panic. Whites feared that the Red Sticks would not only receive military assistance from Great Britain and Spain, but that they would also stir up slave revolts throughout the deep South.

Militias from Tennessee, Mississippi and Georgia immediately entered the civil war on behalf of the Lower Sticks, and after several months of skirmishes throughout the region, the Battle of Horseshoe Bend brought the Creek civil war to a violent conclusion. Fortified by extensive log breastworks on a peninsula along the Tallapoosa River, more than a thousand warriors and hundreds of women and children faced off against a much larger force of Americans and their allies. Once the breastworks had been breached, however, the Creek were trapped. The battle turned into a slaughter, as the 2600 American soldiers and their 600 Indian allies had thoroughly demolished the Red Sticks. More than 500 died in battle, with hundreds more drowning or otherwise being killed in the river as they tried to flee. A few hundred managed to escape to Florida, where they took refuge with the Seminole.

Years later, Sam Houston -- who fought in the Tennessee militia under Andrew Jackson -- described the aftermath:
The sun was going down, and it set on the ruin of the Creek nation. Where, but a few hours before a thousand brave...[warriors] had scowled on death and their assailants, there was nothing to be seen but volumes of dense smoke, rising heavily over the corpses of painted warriors, and the burning ruins of their fortifications.
Five months later, the Treaty of Ft. Jackson ceded to the US more than 23 million acres of Creek territory in southern Georgia and throughout the area that would eventually become the state of Alabama. In a remarkable gesture of ingratitude, the US took land that had been held by Red Sticks as well as the Lower Creeks who had fought with the Americans.

Two decades later, President Andrew Jackson oversaw the complete eviction of the Creeks -- along with the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw -- from the old Southwest. Meantime, the former Creek lands had been opened up to white settlement, and cotton planters flooded the region, rejuvenating the institution of slavery.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

March 26

Eleven years ago, 39 bodies were discovered in one of the wealthiest communities in the US, a small outpost in San Diego County called Rancho Santa Fe. The dead had been members of a religious cult known as “Heaven’s Gate,” and as far as they were concerned, they had just abandoned their home planet for a ride on a spaceship traveling the universe in the 20-million mile long tail of the Halle-Bopp comet.

The journey was a long time coming. In the early 1970s the cult’s founders, Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, met at a Houston psychiatric hospital; Nettles was a nurse and Applewhite a patient who had admitted himself in hope of curing what he believed to be his errant sexual appetites. After severing ties from their families, “The Two” began a spiritual quest that took them from Texas to the woods of Northern California. There, Applewhite and Nettles -- who began referring to themselves as “Bo” and “Peep” -- founded a small band of followers who would call themselves many names over the next two decades before settling Heaven’s Gate a few years before their mass suicide.

Led by the teachings of Bo and Peep, members of the group came to believe that they had received “soul deposits” from the Kingdom of Heaven and that when the time was right, these souls would have the opportunity to leave their bodies and travel to a higher plane of existence. Meantime, the group foreswore earthly pleasures including alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, and sex. They pursued an ascetic lifestyle, dressed androgynously, and waited patiently for a spaceship to carry their souls away.

When the first rendezvous failed to materialize in Waldport, Oregon in September 1975, Bo and Peep shepherded their flock to the Colorado national monument. Again, the followers were disappointed, and by 1977, the group’s membership had dwindled from around a hundred to fewer than 20. By this time, Nettles and Applewhite had adopted new names -- “Ti” and “Do,” respectively -- and muddled along for next few years, migrating throughout the southwest and trying to rebuild their organization in preparation for their eventual “graduation” to the Next Level. When Ti died of cancer in 1985, Do explained to the group that she had done so in order to take over as pilot of their rescue craft, which would surely be coming for them soon.

Meantime, the arrival of the internet provided the group with a new means of publicizing their message as well as the financial means of securing a home base for their community. Several members earned their livings as web designers and computer programmers, and by the mid-1990s, their income enabled Heaven’s Gate to purchase a 9000-foot home in Rancho Santa Fe, where they relocated in 1996.

At this point, Do was already convinced that the comet Halle-Bopp -- sighted for the first time the previous year -- was the bearer of a message for which he’d been waiting a quarter century. In an October 1996 videotape, he warned viewers that
Planet Earth about to be recycled. Your only chance to survive or evacuate is to leave with us. Now, that's a pretty drastic statement -- pretty bold -- in terms of religion, in terms of anybody's intelligent thinking. To most people who would consider themselves intelligent beings, they'd say, "Well, that's absurd. What's all this doomsday stuff? What's all this prophetic, apocalyptic talk?" You know, intelligent human beings should realize that all things have their own cycle. They have their season. They have their beginning, they have their end. We're not saying that planet Earth is coming to an end. We're saying that planet Earth is about to be refurbished, spaded under, and have another chance to serve as a garden for a future human civilization.
The tape did not have a noticeable effect on the group’s membership.

On March 21, the members of Heaven’s Gate gobbled their final meal together at Marie Callendar’s, where they were served with pot pie, salad and cheesecake. The next day, with the comet at its closest point to Earth -- a mere 122 million miles away -- the members of Heaven’s Gate cleaned up their house, took out the garbage, and initiated a suicide pact they called “The Routine.” With help from each other, they spent their last conscious moments on Earth eating applesauce and pudding laced with elephantine doses of phenobarbitol. To wash down their final meals, they swigged vodka before climbing into their bunk beds and securing plastic bags over their heads for good measure. Their bodies were discovered three days later.

Several active members of the community were not present for the "Graduation." Two of them committed committed suicide during the next year, when the comet Halle-Bopp was considerably farther away.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

March 25

On this date in 1931, a fight took place on a Memphis-bound train between a group of whites and a group of blacks, all of whom had hopped the train while traveling the region in search of work. In the course of the skirmish, several of the white youth were tossed from the slow-moving cars. When the train arrived at its next stop in Paint Rock, Alabama, nine black teenagers were arrested by a mob of armed whites. From there, they were removed to a jail in nearby Scottsboro, where they were charged with assaulting a group of white youth on a train earlier that afternoon. Most importantly, the young men were accused of raping two white women -- charges that would have resulted in their lynching that very night if the governor of Alabama had not intervened to prevent it.

Over the next five years, the defendants would endure multiple trials and rounds of appeals that brought the case to the Supreme Court and to the attention of the entire nation. Although the accusations against the so-called “Scottsboro Boys” were completely unsupported by physical or eyewitness testimony, eight of the nine received quick convictions and capital sentences in April 1931. As Hollace Ransdall noted in an unpublished report on the case, the white community of Scottsboro was absolutely convinced of the guilt of the accused.
They all wanted the Negroes killed as quickly as possible in a way that would not bring disrepute upon the town. They therefore preferred a sentence of death by a judge, to a sentence of death by a mob, but they desired the same result, and were impatient with anything that slowed up the conviction and death sentence which they all knew was coming regardless of any testimony.

They said that all negroes were brutes and had to be held down by stern repressive measures or the number of rapes on white women would be larger than it is. Their point seemed to be that it was only by ruthless oppression of the Negro that any white woman was able to escape raping at Negro hands. Starting with this notion, it followed that they could not conceive that two white girls found riding with a crowd of Negroes could possibly have escaped raping. A Negro will always, in their opinion, rape a white woman if he gets the chance. These nine Negroes were riding alone with two white girls on a freight car. Therefore, there was no question that they raped them, or wanted to rape them, or were present while the other Negroes raped them - all of which amounts to very much the same thing in southern eyes - and calls for the immediate death of the Negroes regardless of these shades of difference. As one southerner in Scottsboro put it, "We white people just couldn't afford to let these Niggers get off because of the effect it would have on other Niggers."
On appeal, the US Supreme Court overturned the initial verdicts, ruling that the young men had been offered incompetent counsel. (The original lawyers consisted of a staggering alcoholic and an elderly lawyer who had not tried a case in years.) Alabama quickly retried one of the defendants, Haywood Patterson, and though one of his accusers -- a young woman named Daisy Bates -- had recanted her testimony, the jury again found Patterson guilty and sentenced him to die.

By now, however, the judge in the Patterson trial harbored serious doubts about the guilt of the defendants. In a decision that ultimately ruined his career, Judge James Horton chose to set aside the verdict and ordered a third trial for Patterson. A more compliant judge presided over Patterson’s third trial, which ended in precisely the same manner as his first two. For the second time, the United States Supreme Court vacated Patterson’s conviction -- as well as that of his fellow defendant Clarence Norris -- on the grounds that the court’s deliberate exclusion of blacks from the jury pool had violated the constitutional rights of the accused.

By 1936 -- five years after the initial incident -- the fourth round of trials began. Patterson and Norris were again convicted, along with Andy Wright, Ozzie Powell and Charlie Weems. All received sentences of 20 to 99 years for crimes they did not commit. On July 24, 1937, the state dropped charges against Roy Wright, Eugene Williams, Olen Montgomery and Willie Roberson, all of whom had been in prison for nearly five years after their initial guilty verdicts had been overturned. Between 1943 and 1950, Alabama paroled four of the five convicted Scottsboro defendants; Haywood Patterson escaped from prison in July 1948 and fled to Michigan, which refused to extradite him after his capture two years later.

Although the case is universally regarded as one of the worst episodes in American legal history, Alabama never offered restitution to the young men who spent so many unnecessary years fearing for their lives in state custody.



Monday, March 24, 2008

March 24

Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez, the Catholic Archbishop of San Salvador, was assassinated by members of a right wing death squad on this date in 1980; he was shot in the heart at the Hospital de la Divina Providencia, where he had been leading a funeral mass for a friend’s mother.

Romero had become an unlikely champion for the impoverished peasants of El Salvador, which was in the early stages of a civil war that would eventually claim more than 75,000 lives by the early 1990s. Until the mid-1970s, Romero was a resolutely conservative figure in the Catholic church, focusing on social problems like alcoholism and pornography while many of his peers scrutinized the economic injustices that had left most of the country landless, politically disenfranchised and desperately poor. After witnessing human rights abuses -- including a 1975 massacre at Tres Calles, a village in his own diocese -- Romero began to revise his understanding of the church’s relationship to the poor. Shortly after his 1977 appointment as Archbishop, Romero began to challenge the government openly; when his friend and fellow priest Rutilio Grande was assassinated in early March 1977, Romero publicly excommunicated the murderers and commenced a three-year nonviolent struggle in concert with El Salvador’s dispossessed.

During this time, the right-wing, authoritarian government of Carlos Romero -- who was not related to the Archbishop -- intensified its pressure on those in the Catholic church who espoused “liberation theology” or who otherwise advocated on behalf of the poor. Death squads and assassins gunned down at least six priests between 1977-1979, and in some villages the possession of religious materials became grounds for arrest. As the death squads accelerated their work, Romero frequently visited the garbage pits where the bodies had been dumped, looking for campseinos whose families had reported them missing.

By 1980, more than 3000 Salvadorans were being killed each month at the hands of government forces who were in many cases armed, trained and funded by the United States, which fretted about the spread of anything resembling communism in Latin America. Romero appealed to the United States to withhold its resources, to no avail.

On March 23, 1980, Romero urged the Salvadoran soldiers to cast down their weapons.
I would like to make an appeal in a special way to the men of the army, to the police, to those in the barracks. Brothers, you are part of our own people. You kill your own campesino brothers and sisters. And before an order to kill that a man may give, the law of God must prevail that says: Thou shalt not kill! No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God. No one has to fulfill an immoral law. It is time to recover your consciences and to obey your consciences rather than the orders of sin…. In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuously, I beg you, I ask you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!
Oscar Romero understood that his opposition to the government would likely cost him his life. As he explained in his final homily, however, “[O]ne must not love oneself so much, as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us, and those that fend off danger will lose their lives.”

The day after his appeal to the soldiers, Archbishop Romero joined the long list of Salvadoran martyrs. At his funeral, which was attended by nearly 250,000 people, government soldiers whot and killed as many as 50 mourners. Over the next 12 years, the US Congress and American Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush spent $1.5 million a day in support of the Salvadoran government. Archbishop Romero’s assassin was never captured.

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Brief Convalescent Interruption

Hey folks. Hazel here.

Look, I'm not sure what that bastard who runs this site told you, but I'm given to understand that a few of you people actually offered him money last week so that some other asshole could cut me open and tack a metal plate to my knee. Can that possibly be true? Are humans really so deranged?

Seriously. What gives?

Take a look at my leg. You might notice that it's been shaved. Do you know why my leg is shaved?

Oh, jeez, I don't know. Maybe it's because my people . . . wanted . . . to hobble me. Just because I'm always in their faces looking for some juicy love, or because I topple the high chair while chasing the mounds of food their illiterate jabbering goblin-child flings around the living room, or because I bark at those idiot cats in the middle of the night. Whatever. They apparently can't handle The Hazel, and so they cut me up like a Christmas goose.

And now a few of you have blood on your hands, too. Way to go. Way to get sucked into the vortex. You know they shaved my stomach, too. Maybe that owner of mine would let you have a gander at that for a couple of quarters. God, I hate him. If I weren't on so many drugs right now, I'd eat his face off.

Did he mention that he's been calling me "Tripod" for the past few days? Oh, he didn't? Yeah. Real classy. At least he's stopped calling me "Dumbo."

But what else would you expect from a guy who spends most of his life in sweatpants? It's pathetic. He looks like a total shut-in, but he actually leaves the house sometimes and -- wonder of wonders -- seems to hold down a regular job. Really, I'm embarrassed to be seen with the guy. Can I run a donation drive as well? Maybe I can raise enough to buy that bag of lard a decent set of clothes, or maybe get him a haircut more than two or three times a year. And he's got the nerve to come at me with the grooming tools? I'm like, "Take care of your damn self!"

As soon as I can walk again, I'm going to teach myself how to take a dump in his shoes. Oh, what's the point? He probably won't even notice.

Anyhow, I hope you're all happy. You're a couple of dollars poorer, and I've got this gigantic wound on my leg. It's win-win!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

March 20

When Martha M. Place threw sulfuric acid into her daughter’s face and smothered her with a pillow in February 1898, she probably was not angling to become the first American woman to die in the electric chair. Yet the Brooklyn dressmaker achieved precisely that status a little over thirteen months later, when on 20 March 1899 she was strapped into the novel device at Sing Sing prison and followed her 17-year-old child into the void.

Place was described in the press as "homely, old, ill-tempered, not loved by her husband." According to prison officials -- who carried out the execution after Governor Theodore Roosevelt refused to commute the sentence -- her electrocution was quick and efficient.

Thirty-four years after the life of Martha Place shuddered to a conclusion, the State of Florida executed bricklayer Giuseppe Zangara for the crime of murder. Zangara, a naturalized American citizen from Italy, had attempted to assassinate President-elect Franklin Roosevelt a month earlier in Miami. Zangara, who had suffered from acute stomach ulcers since childhood, was convinced that if he killed the leader of the capitalist world, he would be delivered from his excruciating physical pain -- and that he could alleviate the economic catastrophe that had immiserated millions over the previous four years.

In early 1933, he purchased a gun for $4 and on February 15 brought it to Bayfront Park in Miami, where Roosevelt was scheduled to appear that day. There, the five-foot-tall Zangara stood on top of a wooden chair and shot five people, none of whom was his intended target. Four of the wounded survived. Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, however, took a bullet to the chest and died on March 6. Two weeks after Cermak’s death, Zangara was executed at the state prison in Raiford. Had Cermak lived, Zangara would have spent at least 84 years in prison -- the sentence he had already received for trying to kill Roosevelt.

As he was being strapped into the chair, Guiseppe Zangara remained feisty and unrepentant. "Viva Italia!" he cried.
Goodbye to all poor peoples everywhere! Lousy capitalists! No picture! Capitalists! No one here to take my picture. All capitalists lousy bunch of crooks. Go ahead. Push the button!
Sixty-two years after Zangara’s anti-capitalist tirade, the state of Oklahoma executed Thomas Grasso by lethal injection, punishment he received for killing two elderly women (one of whom he strangled with her own Christmas tree lights on Christmas Eve 1990). Grasso had been serving a 20-year sentence in New York for one of the murders; although Grasso was sentenced to die in Oklahoma for the murder of 87-year-old Hilda Johnson, New York Governor Mario Cuomo refused to send him back -- even though Grasso, by his own account, desperately wanted to die. When George Pataki campaigned for Cuomo’s job in 1994, he promised to help Grasso fulfill his wish. Pataki won the election, and Grasso returned to Oklahoma. He refused to appeal his capital sentence, and so the state quickly scheduled his execution.

On 20 March 1995, Thomas Grasso sat down to his last meal -- a dozen steamed mussels, a Burger King double cheeseburger, a can of spaghetti with meatballs, a mango, half a pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and a strawberry milkshake. Grasso’s last meal was more notable, however, for what it lacked. In his final statement, Grasso announced that “I did not get my Spaghetti Os -- I got spaghetti. I want the press to know this!"

In a separate written statement released to the press before his death, Grasso wrote that “What we call the beginning is often the end, and to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” Almost no one recognized that Grasso’s statement came from “Little Gidding,” one of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.



Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Brief Veterinary Interruption

As befits someone who spends his free time describing the universal horror of human existence, I've had pretty miserable luck in recent years with the animals who live under my roof. About four years ago, Greta -- the older of our two Newfoundlands -- lost her mind and required several months of heavy medication, hypnotherapy and Jungian psychoanalysis before she ceased being afraid of nearly every spot in the house. She's no longer being medicated, but most days she still seems confident that the house is crawling with invisible dog murderers.

The next 18 months were more or less uneventful in the pet department, but in October 2006 our beloved cat Herbert contracted diabetes and suffered through nearly a year of fruitless insulin treatment before leaving us last May.

Two months later, Hazel -- the younger and less melancholy of our Newfs -- blew out the meniscus in her left knee, an injury that required costly surgery and an extended period of rehab, not to mention a shaved leg and an embarrassing plastic hood to keep her from gobbling her own wound. By October, though, she had fully recovered and was again ambling through the neighborhood, barking at harmless strangers and befouling yards and driveways like the town drunk she'd no doubt be if she were human.

Today, unfortunately, we submitted Hazel to the surgeon's knife for the second time in seven months, this time to repair a partially torn cruciate ligament in her right leg. The alternative to surgery would have been a lifetime of progressive arthritis, as her body crudely dumped calcium into her knee to substitute for a failing ACL. Treatment for that would have required daily anti-inflammatory medication, an expense of roughly $1000 a year that could just as well have been spent on a reconstructed knee. Euthanasia -- of either the medical or shotgun variety -- was not something we could contemplate for a five-year-old dog whom we continue love in spite of her tremendous character flaws.

The prognosis for Hazel's recovery is excellent, but the prognosis for my family's bank account is not quite so pleasant. To put it crudely, a dog that we received for exactly zero dollars in early 2005 will now be walking around on $5000 worth of new knees.

Clever readers have already figured out where this is heading. Believe me, I'm nearly too embarrassed to continue.

Now, I can think of plenty of reasons why no one with a sense of perspective should donate money to help defray my veterinary bills. There are plenty of bloggers out there who lack health care, who have lost their jobs, who have surrendered their homes to foreclosure, or who have been killed in Iraq. My wife and I are both employed, and my toddling daughter will soon be old enough to sew purses and stitch tennis shoes at home. More importantly, our entire economy appears to be gyrating in ever-tighter spirals toward the drain, and so my general advice would be to preserve your assets, stock up on canned food and bottled water, and learn how to deter or disable hungry neighborhood mobs.

All that said, if you're a regular reader of the Axis -- and you happen to have (literally) a couple of dollars that you weren't planning to spend on booze or drizzle with lighter fluid and use to roast hot dogs -- I would be unendingly grateful for a small contribution toward Hazel's shiny new knee. You can use the gaudy yellow donation button in the right sidebar, or you can use the gaudy yellow donation button below.

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March 19

Rene-Robert Cavelier De La Salle was killed by a single bullet to the head 321 years ago today at a spot about 70 miles northwest of what would later be the city of Houston. The French explorer was certainly not the last person to be murdered in Texas, but the circumstances of his passing were memorable nonetheless.

Credited with exploring the Louisiana territory and establishing (and botching) the first French colony on the Gulf of Mexico, La Salle was an audacious but badly organized, manic depressive and ill-tempered leader who eventually drew the murderous animosity of his men during his final adventure. While searching for the Mississippi River La Salle’s nephew, Moranget, became embroiled in a dispute over bison meat with the expedition’s surgeon, a man named Pierre Duhaut; Moranget accused them of setting aside the best meat and saving the marrow bones for themselves. On the night of March 18 Duhaut -- enraged by the accusations from a man he already loathed -- plotted with four other accomplices and killed Moranget and two others with an axe while they were asleep.

The next day, when La Salle arrived at the scene of the crime with a Recollet priest, he was dispatched as well. As one of the conspirators explained later
We followed them a few paces along the river as far as the fatal spot where two of the assassins were hiding on either side in the grass with their guns cocked. The first one missed his mark, but the other fired at the same time and with that single shot hit Monsieur La Salle in the head; he died one hour later.
The murderers stripped La Salle’s body and left it behind as the rest of the party continued on toward their destination at Fort Saint-Louis-des-Illinois. Accounts vary as to the final disposition of La Salle's corpse. Some accounts insist that the dead explorer was buried by his friend, Father Anastase Douay, who was with him when he died. Others explain that he was left unburied to be eaten by wild animals. Regardless of the truth, La Salle's body was never recovered.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

March 18

The most destructive tornado in US history touched ground on this date in 1925. After touching ground outside Ellington, Missouri, the F5 twister spent the next three hours carving a thousand-yard path through southern Illinois and southwestern Indiana. Along the way, its winds -- which reached 300 miles per hour -- turned everything in its way to rubble, killing nearly 700 people, injuring more than 2000, and destroying well over $16 million dollars worth of property.

In Illinois, where the greatest destruction took place, entire towns -- Parrish, West Frankfort, De Soto, and Murphysboro among others -- were almost completely obliterated. In the village of De Soto, 69 people died, half of them children attending a school that collapsed in the storm. A journalist visiting De Soto the next day noted that
Only a dozen houses remain standing and all of these are damaged with roofs and porches missing. Piles of brick and timbers fill the streets, trees are split and uprooted. The scene resembles that of a World War battlefield, except than on a battlefield the victims are men. Here they are mostly women and children. Many of the men escaped [because] they were away from home, mostly at work in the coal mines, and were out of the tornado’s path
The destruction of Murphysboro was even more thorough. There, 243 people died as the tornado whipped half the town into splinters.

The US Weather Bureau had predicted “rain and strong shifting winds” for March 18, 1925. In the years after the Tri-State Tornado, forecasters developed a better system for forecasting and tracking tornados. They also began actually using the term "tornado," which the Bureau had officially nearly 40 years earlier.

On the 12th anniversary of the Tri-State Tornado, a natural gas leak at a school in New London, Texas, when a shop instructor turned on an electric sander. The force of the blast actually lifted an entire section of the building into the air before it crashed and disintegrated. At least 300 children died, making the New London Explosion the worst school disaster in American history.



Monday, March 17, 2008

March 17

Eight years ago today, more than 530 people -- mostly women and children -- were burnt to death in a chapel in the remote town of Kanungu, Uganda. The victims were members of a Christian cult known as the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, a group that had formed during the late 1980s under the leadership of a Catholic madman named Joseph Kibwetere. Kibwetere had been a prominent religious and political leader during the long years Ugandans spent under the grotesque rule of Idi Amin; when the former Ugandan president Milton Obote returned to power in 1980, Kibwetere was forced from his home district of Ntungamo.

Kibwetere eventually founded the MRTC with the assistance of several other former Catholic priests and a former prostitute and banana beer brewer named Credonia Mwerinde. After relocating several times, the group settled in Kanungu and lived communally, surviving on the revenues brought by the pineapple and banana plantations they had purchased. Together, this core group developed a sect based on what they claimed to be the true intent of the Mosaic commandments. MRTC members dressed in green, white or black robes and lived under conditions of extraordinary austerity. Kibwetere -- who claimed to have communicated directly with the Virgin Mary -- insisted that followers refrain from sex and alcohol. Fasting was a constant feature of the movement culture, and residents of the community were eventually forbidden from speaking except during prayers and song. All other communications were delivered through hand signals. By the late 1990s, anywhere from 1000-4000 people had joined the Movement for the Restoration.

No one knows whether God spoke to Kibwetere and Mwerinde through hand signals, but in 1999, the cult’s newspaper announced that a divine prophecy had been revealed to the cult’s leaders and that the world would soon be ending. Community members began disposing of their worldly possessions in preparation for the day of doom, which was verified to be December 31, 1999.

When the new year arrived with little fanfare -- and without the promised global catastrophe -- members of the cult were greatly dismayed. Two months later, as complaints mounted and dissenters roiled, a new doomsday was scheduled for sometime between March 6-18. On the 17th, hundreds of unsuspecting worshippers gathered at an old chapel, whose floors and pews had already been soaked in gasoline and sulfuric acid. After the chapel was packed to capacity, its doors and windows were locked and barred from the outside -- by whom no one has ever determined -- and the entire building set on fire. No one survived. Forensic evidence later indicated that many of the victims had been clubbed, poisoned or hacked to death before the fire began. The leaders of the MRTC are presumed to have died in the fire as well.

Over the next few weeks, hundreds of additional bodies turned up in villages and mass graves across the country. Nearly all of them had been poisoned.

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Friday, March 14, 2008

March 14

The liquidation of the Podgorze Ghetto in Krakow was completed on this date in 1943, marking the conclusion of a three-year project to render the Polish city the “cleanest” in the land. This racial cleansing was conceived by Hans Frank, who was appointed generalgouvenour after the German invasion of September 1939. Jews had been living in Krakow since the middle of the 13th century, when they were invited there by King Boleslav, who granted them unprecedented religious freedoms and guarantees of personal safety; during the following century, as European nations expelled their Jewish populations, many fled to Poland. By mid-March 1943, Nazi Germany had obliterated that 600-year history.

A deportation order issued in May 1940 dispersed tens of thousands of Jews into the suburbs, small towns and countryside; more were expelled later that fall, with the remaining numbers relocated from the historic Jewish quarter to a dilapidated, overcrowded ghetto in the district of Podgorze. In June and October 1942, the new ghetto was thinned as thousands were shipped to the nearby Belzec death camp, where nearly 450,000 Jews would eventually perish. During the second deportation, all the children from the orphanage were taken to the outskirts of town and shot along with their teachers and curators.

On 13 March 1943, Podgorze was sealed off and the last 6000 Jews were evacuated or shot. The “workers” from Ghetto A -- mostly men -- were transferred to Plaszow, a labor camp were workers were forced to exhume, cremate, and scatter the remains of previous victims from mass graves. The women, children and elderly of “Ghetto B” were cleared out on March 14 and embarked for Berkenau, where 1500 were immediately put to death in Krema II, the gas chamber that became operational that very day. After Podgorze was “cleansed,” Jewish prisoners were trucked in to collect the property left behind.

Among the survivors from Krakow was Roman Polanski, the film director whose wife Sharon Tate would eventually be murdered by the Manson family.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

March 12

After the St. Francis Dam failed eighty years ago today, William Mulholland -- the most famous water engineer in American history -- tearfully declared that “The only ones I envy about this thing are the ones who are dead.”

There were hundreds of them -- some buried beneath 20 feet of mud and detritus in Santa Clara Valley, North of Los Angeles, others pushed into the Pacific Ocean. As more than 12 million gallons of water poured from the ruptured dam, the towns of Castaic Junction, Piru, Bardsdale, Fillmore, Santa Paula and Saticoy were overrun as the water coursed in a two-mile-wide stream, crushing its way 50 miles to the sea.

The dam, whose construction had begun four years earlier, seemed destined to equal the majesty of the Los Angeles Aqueduct -- Mulholland’s greatest triumph, which helped spur the rapid development of Southern California in ways that were ultimately disastrous for the region’s ecology. Before the project was completed, however, numerous cracks had begun to appear in the massive concrete wall, which towered 195 feet and held back nearly 40,000 acre-feet of water. Mulholland dismissed evidence of the dam’s weakness. When new faults appeared earlier in the day on March 12, the engineer personally inspected the site and declared it sound. Three minutes before midnight, the St. Francis dam failed catastrophically, breaking into several pieces and killing the damkeeper and his entire family before having its way with the test of the valley.

The Fillmore American -- based in one of the destroyed towns -- reported bitterly several days later:
Just as the ominous thirteenth of March, 1928, was being born, Death, mounted on a wave of swirling waters, seventy feet high, and beginning at a crumbling dam high up in San Francisquito canyon, rode in devastating wrath to the sea. Sweeping through the most fertile valley in the Southland. And in his wake he left death, and devastation, and ruin, where a short hour before his passing people slept in peace, security and happiness.

The story of the breaking dam has greeted your eyes from scores of newspapers pages before this one reaches you. How the big $2,500,000 dam, built on the insecure foundation of a great city's greed for what did not belong to it, crumbled as the result of faulty designing and hasty construction. Engineer [Carl] Grunsky was right. That great dam built in the center of the canyon, with light-flung wings to the soft earth sides of the mountains, was an ‘old woman's apron.' And the strings broke and the result was a hell of swirling waters that took life after life, until its fury was stayed in the waters of the sea.
The final death doll from the flood was never accurately surveyed, though the best contemporary estimates suggest as many as 600 may have perished. Some bodies washed up ashore in Mexico. Others were never found. The last known victim of the St. Francis flood was discovered in 1992 in Newhall.

Following the disaster, William Mulholland retired and secluded himself from public life until his death eight years later.



Tuesday, March 11, 2008

March 11

The just-completed Dale Dyke Dam ruptured on this date in 1864, sending 100 million gallons of water rushing through the Loxley river valley toward the English city of Sheffield. The local economy was driven by the city’s expanding steel industry, and Sheffield was in great need of new supplies of water. Constructed over five years by the Sheffield Water Company, the reservoir was being filled for the first time on the evening of March 11 when the dyke’s earthen wall collapsed. Within minutes, the towns of Bradfield, Damflask, Little Matlock, and Malin Bridge had been obliterated, with parts of Hillsborough and Owlerton suffering major damage as well before the torrent struck Sheffield itself, crushing several working class residential areas.

The Illustrated London News described the flood as a “water demon” that roared “with a voice of thunder” as it charged through the valley.
Everything gave way before the roaring torrent. The immense mass of water, filled with debris, razed the ground along its track as easily, and almost as instantaneously, as a cannon-ball makes for itself a lane deep into the ranks of living men. Whole familes — buried in sleep or, perchance, startled from it by the rushing roar — were literally hurled into eternity.

In the morning, the very foundations of their humble and hitherto peaceful abodes were undiscernible, and their bodies were lodged, some of them miles off, in the most unheard-of nooks and corners — here and there singly, elsewhere in heaps of ten, a dozen, or fourteen. Almost all were in their night-dresses — from some even these had been torn off by the violence of the flood. Several were shockingly mangled, and all, of course, covered with slime and mud. Let us draw a veil over this part of the picture; it is too heartrending to allow of our taking more than a general and hasty glance at it.
Well over 250 people lost their lives in the Sheffield Flood, which remains the greatest human-caused disaster in British history. The oldest victim, Ann Cook of Rutland Road, was 87. The two youngest -- including the first to die in the flood -- had been born March 9 and had not yet been named. At Malin Bridge, the Armitage family lost eleven members and the Spooners thirteen. At Hill Bridge, a man named William Crookes jumped from his bedroom window, fearing that his house was about the be dislodged by the cascade; his house was in fact perfectly safe, but Crookes later died from the injuries he sustained in the fall. At the farmhouse of James Trickett near Malin Bridge, ten people died, including Trickett’s entire family, one boarder and three servants. While there were no human survivors at the Trickett farm, eleven cows, six calves and a pig survived when the flood waters missed the barn where they were sleeping and crushed the house instead.



Monday, March 10, 2008

March 10

On the night of March 9-10, 1945, roughly 300 American B-29 bombers lifted off from air bases in Saipan, Guam, and Tinian and flew at a low altitude toward Tokyo. This would not be the first time the city bore the weight of an air assault, but these raids would be unique and prophetic; each plane carried 1700 petroleum bombs which, unlike conventional explosives, were designed to set their targets on fire.

A densely populated city stuffed with wooden buildings -- the better for residents to survive an earthquake -- Tokyo was an immense pile of fuel, especially in the flatlands of the city where the city’s working class lived and labored in small shops. When the bombers swept over the city that night, 16 square miles of the city were reduced to cinders, as a tornado of fire took between 80-100,000 lives, nearly all of them civilians.

For the residents of Tokyo, there was almost literally no escape from the flames and heat. Bomb shelters -- safe places of refuge during previous attacks -- were useless in the midst of an incendiary attack. People asphyxiated as the fires vacuumed oxygen from underground bunkers, which quickly turned into 1800-degree ovens and rendered their inhabitants into simmering mounds of fat and bone.

At street level, fleeing civilians lit up like matchsticks as the city roiled with flame. Tornados sucked cars, enormous clots of wood and people into the air; the turbulence was so great around the city that even several bombers were flipped on their backs as they left the city’s airspace. Saotome Katsumoto, a novelist and political activist who survived the attack, recalled the horrific night.
Actually it was a cold night, as it turned out it was the coldest March night for forty years. Many people who tried to escape by jumping into the water — into the canals — either died from drowning or suffered heart attacks caused by the intense shock of the freezing water. People carried all their belongings with them, as much as they could. Many women were carrying babes in arms and most people were wearing heavy clothing against the cold, lots carried their bedding, futon, bedding on their backs, or over their heads. A lot of it caught fire and burned them to death.
American participants in the raid reacted with a mixture of pride and horror. General Curtis LeMay, who headed the 21st Bomber Command and directed the raids, bragged that the people of Tokyo had been “scorched and boiled and baked to death.” Chester Marshall, one of the Superfortress pilots, was somewhat less enthusiastic, explaining decades later to an Australian reporter that “I couldn't eat anything for two or three days. You know it was nauseating, really. We just said 'What is that I smell?' And it's a kind of a sweet smell, and somebody said, 'Well that's flesh burning, had to be.'"

The firebombings of Tokyo and more than sixty other urban targets from March through July were intended to terrorize the Japanese, destroy the nation’s social and economic fabric, and shorten the war. The United States accomplished the first two of these; the third goal would not be met until the atomic attacks of early August. By that point, 56 square miles of Toko were gone, and at least a million people had been displaced.

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Friday, March 07, 2008

March 7

On this date 1965, hundreds of civil rights activists walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which would have led them out of Selma, Alabama, toward the state capital in Montgomery. The marchers were determined to press their governor -- the atrocious George W. Wallace -- to reign in the state’s police and troopers, who had been brutalizing justice advocates for years.

In early 1965 Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had launched a voting rights campaign in Dallas County. Like many communities throughout the deep South, Dallas Country was dominated by the racist Sheriff Jim Clark who bragged that he had learned “never to his a nigger with your fist because his head is too hard.” In Dallas County, only 335 blacks -- out of a population of 15,000 -- were registered to vote, a percentage that was characteristic of Alabama as a whole.

The Selma protests quickly drew the official wrath of the state, which arrested thousands of civil rights activists during the first weeks of February. On February 18, a demonstration in nearby Marion had brought the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year old veteran and Baptist deacon whom a state trooper had shot at point-blank range during a police riot. Jackson -- who took a bullet to the abdomen while trying to protect his mother -- died from an infection on February 26. (His killer, James Bonard Fowler, was charged with murder a mere 42 years later.)

In response to Jackson’s death, the SCLC planned the Selma-to-Montgomery march for Sunday, March 7. After crossing the Pettus Bridge -- located on Jefferson Davis Highway (US 80) -- the marchers were greeted by a phalanx of Alabama Troopers. The subsequent assault was captured live by television crews and subsequently broadcast around the world. J.L. Chestnut, a young lawyer from Selma, recalled “Bloody Sunday” four decades later.
[W]hat I witnessed led me to believe America could not be saved and white people were not worth saving. One hundred fifty state troopers decked out in riot gear, tear gas, masks, and clubs the size of baseball bats, backed by fifty special deputy sheriffs mounted on nervous horses and armed with huge clubs, beat the young nonviolent people senseless in broad daylight . . .

People were left bloodied on the highway. [John] Lewis [of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee] was on his knees, suffering from two concussions and bleeding like a stuck hog. Women and even children were unconscious, others semiconscious, lying, sitting, trying to run, but literally being run over by horses -- and hearing their ribs and limbs cracking. It was the worst day of my life.

Over the next two weeks, continuing violence in Alabama brought further attention to Selma and the broader question of black voting rights. On March 9, a white Unitarian minister from Boston named James Reeb was beaten by segregationist thugs in Selma; he died from head injuries two days later. After a federal court ruled on behalf of the SCLC, thousands of marchers left Selma on March 21. Among the marchers was a housewife and mother of five named Viola Liuzzo. Liuzzo had watched footage of the “Bloody Sunday” confrontation from her home in Detroit. Horrified by what she saw, Liuzzo traveled to Selma less than two weeks later and participated in the final march, which successfully arrived in Montgomery on March 24.

On March 25, Viola Liuzzo was shot to death in her car by four Klansmen. A little over four months later, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act; Lyndon Johnson signed it into law.

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Thursday, March 06, 2008

March 6

Today is the anniversary of the Dred Scott decision, by which the US Supreme Court determined that Congress did not have the power to restrict slavery anywhere in those territories acquired after 1787. Issued in March 1857, the ruling denied Dred Scott the right to sue for his freedom in federal court.

Scott was an enslaved man from Missouri who had lived for several years in Illinois and the Wisconsin territory, where slavery was prohibited by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. In denying Scott the opportunity to sue for freedom, the Court also ruled the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional. In the notorious majority opinion, Chief Justice Roger Taney argued that blacks had never been intended to receive any federal rights “the white man was bound to respect,” and that it was inconceivable that blacks should ever have been intended by the Founders to enjoy equal citizenship. Such a status, he pointed out, would have endowed blacks with
the right to enter every other State whenever they pleased, singly or in companies, without pass or passport, and without obstruction, to sojourn there as long as they pleased, to go where they pleased at every hour of the day or night without molestation, unless they committed some violation of law for which a white man would be punished; and it would give them the full liberty of speech in public and in private upon all subjects upon which its own citizens might speak; to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went.
Among other things, Taney explained, these rights would have produced “discontent and insubordination” among both slaves and free men, thus “endangering the peace and safety of the State.”

Eighteen months after the decision was rendered, Dred Scott died of tuberculosis. The decision that bears his name, of course, became one of the decisive strokes in the background to the American Civil War, which would kill 600,000 people within the decade.



Wednesday, March 05, 2008

March 5

On this date in 1770, British redcoats from the 29th Regiment of Foot opened fire on a crowd of American colonists at the Old State House in Boston, killing five bystanders from a crowd that had been pelting the soldiers with snowballs, garbage, and chunks of ice. At their trial, the Redcoats were successfully defended by a lawyer named John Adams -- Adams would eventually serve one term as President of the United States.

Broadly speaking, the shootings represented perhaps the inevitable outcome of the hostility between many Bostonians and the British regulars quartered so controversially in their city since October 1768. Clashes between soldiers and local men were routine and had accelerated in the days before the encounter on March 5. In narrower terms, however, the so-called Boston Massacre originated in a dispute over a bill owed to a local wigmaker by an English officer; when the argument over the bill escalated and the wigmaker’s apprentice was beaten, a crowd of artisans and other workingmen responded by confronting a group of soldiers outside a government guilding. When a chunk of ice knocked Private Hugh Montgomery to the ground, he and his fellow soldiers opened fire on a group that Adams described as “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negros and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs.”

Among the “motley rabble” were Crispus Attucks, an Afro-Indian who died of two shots to the chest; Samuel Gray, who took a bullet to the brain; James Caldwell, who died of two shots to the back; and Samuel Maverick and Patrick Carr, both of whom died from their wounds several days after the attack.

In his famous “Boston Massacre Oration,” delivered on the fourth anniversary of the bloody deed, John Hancock urged his fellow colonists not to forget what happened on 5 March 1774. Speaking with typical revolutionary hyperbole, Hanckock thundered:
Let this sad tale of death never be told without a tear; let not the heaving bosom cease to burn with a manly indignation at the barbarous story, through the long tracts of future time; let every parent tell the shameful story to his listening children until tears of pity glisten in their eyes, and boiling passions shake their tender frames; and whilst the anniversary of that ill-fated night is kept a jubilee in the grim court of pandemonium, let all America join in one common prayer to heaven that the inhuman, unprovoked murders of the fifth of March, 1770, planned by Hillsborough, and a knot of treacherous knaves in Boston, and executed by the cruel hand of Preston and his sanguinary coadjutors, may ever stand in history without a parallel.
Without doubt, John Hancock would not have enjoyed the 20th century. One hundred and seventy years after the Boston Massacre, Joseph Stalin accepted a memo from Lavrenty Beria, head of Soviet intelligence, recommending the execution of 25,000 Polish prisoners of war being held at Kozelsk, Starobelsk and Ostashkov. The shootings were carried out beginning in April at the Katyn Forest, at two locations in Smolensk, as well as at prisons in Kalinin, Kharkiv, Moscow, and other Soviet cities. For the next half century, the Soviet Union denied that the mass executions had ever taken place.

Thirteen years after agreeing to what would become known as the Katyn Massacre, Joesph Stalin expired from a massive stroke on 5 March 1953. Most of his final day was spent alone on the floor of his dacha, where he lay partly paralyzed and unable to call for assistance, or to tell anyone that he had soiled himself. If he was not in fact poisoned -- as has sometimes been alleged -- he probably should have been.



Tuesday, March 04, 2008

March 4

If the various accounts are to be trusted, a Roman guard named Adrian (or Hadrian) was martyred on this date in the year 306. According to legend, Adrian -- who hailed from Nicomedia -- was inspired to a sudden conversion when he witnessed a group of Christians being led in chains to their tortuous imprisonment and predictable execution. Declaring himself a Christian as well, the guard surrendered himself and joined his new brothers and sisters. His young wife Natalia, far from being irritated with her husband’s decision, is alleged to have wept with glee at the news; she was, it turns out, herself a Christian already.

Following her husband’s trial, during which he was beaten and lashed, Natalia was allowed for some reason to be present at his dismemberment. Indeed, she helped the executioners fulfill their obligation to separate Adrian from his hands and feet. As told by Sabine Baring Gould’s 19th century chronicle of The Lives of the Saints, Natalia lifted her husband’s “dear feet” and placed them “reverently and tenderly” on the block.
Then, the executioner smote and crushed the bones and next with an axe hewed off the feet.

Natalia, who had stationed herself at the head of him she loved best in all the world, said, with her eyes on his face, “Servant of Christ! if you live put out your hand to mine!” And the dying man feebly stretched out his hand, as though groping for hers, and she caught it and held it and laid it on the anvil; then the executioner brought his axe down and hewed it off as she clasped it. And she folded it in her mantle to her heart, and watched the colour die out of the cheeks of Adrian and his eyes grow dim. She closed them with her loving hand.
In customary fashion, the body of St. Adrian was parceled out over subsequent centuries to churches and shrines across Europe -- an arm in Léon, a jawbone and half an arm in Cologne, another half-arm in Prague, an armless corpse in Raulcourt, teeth in Hainault and Flanders, a head in Bologna, and various bones in Agincourt, Douai, Bruges and at Mecheln. Belgian churches alone three rival bodies, each of which was supposed to have been that of Adrian, the patron saint of butchers, arms dealers, epilepsy and the plague.

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Monday, March 03, 2008

March 3