Thursday, February 28, 2008

February 28

h58906kThe only American cabinet officials ever to be die in a steamship explosion did so on this date in 1844, when a 27,000 pound wrought iron gun named the “Peacemaker” shattered aboard the USS Princeton, killing Secretary of State Abel Upshur and five other people.

The explosion took place during a demonstration for President John Tyler, who was aboard the ship with 400 administration officials and other compatriots. Late in the afternoon, after the massive gun had been fired several times, Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmer requested that the guests be treated to one last demonstration of the gun's awesome power. Gilmer died in the subsequent blast, which was caused by an undetected and catastrophic manufacturing defect that caused the lower barrel of the gun to shatter. Gilmer was killed when a piece of shrapnel struck him in the head; a slave of President Tyler’s named Armistead (after Tyler’s mother) was also dispatched by a piece of flying iron. Abel Upshur lost his arms and legs and was disemboweled by the blast, while the severed arm of Virgil Maxcy, an American diplomat serving in Belgium, struck a bystander, covering her in blood. (In Nathaniel Currie’s lithograph of the unfortunate event, Maxcy’s arm can be seen flying through the air.) As the dead and wounded law scattered across the boat, President Tyler comforted a distraught young woman named Julia Gardiner whose father, Colonel David Gardiner, was de-limbed along with Upshur. Gardiner and Tyler married four months later.

When the Princeton returned to Washington, five of the six men killed in the explosion were laid in state in the East Room of the White House. Armistead’s body was delivered instead to his family. When John Tyler died eighteen years later, he did so as a member of the Confederate House of Representatives.

Thirty-three years after the “Peacemaker” exploded, the United States senate ratified the so-called “Manypenny agreement” between the United States and the Oglala Sioux, the Arapaho and Cheyenne; it was so named for George W. Manypenny, an American commissioner who had previously negotiated several treaties between the US and American Indians. Although the 1868 treaty of Ft. Laramie had set aside an enormous area of the northern Plains known at the time as the “Great Sioux Reservation.” Amendments to the 1868 treaty could only take place with the approval of three-quarters of the people.

Throughout the 1870s the United States abrogated the St. Laramie agreement, first by allowing railroad companies to cut through the reservation and then -- in 1875 -- by opening up Indian lands to miners. Following a short and brutal war that included the Battle of Little Big Horn, the US imposed its will on the Sioux by withholding rations and forcing their chiefs to the negotiating table. According to the terms of the one-sided Manypenny arrangement -- which most certainly did not have the support of three quarters of the population -- the Sioux were to surrender claims to the Black Hills region, which stretched across five states and covered 47 million acres of land stuffed with gold and other resources that would enrich American industrialists and financiers while impoverish the indigenous people who lived there.

Three years after the agreement that bore his name was ratified, George Manypenny wrote a book entitled Our Indian Wards. There he wrote that
It can not be denied, that from the period when the first infant settlements were made upon the Atlantic sea-board by European colonies, until the present time, there have been constant, persistent, and unceasing efforts on the part of the white man to drive the Indian from his hunting ground and his home.
In 1979, the Indian Court of Claims, established by the US in 1944 to review and rectify historic treaty violations, judged the Manypenny agreement to be one part of the “constant, persistent, and unceasing drive” to dispossess Indian people of their land; the court ordered financial restitution of more than $100 million for the Black Hills. In 1980, the Supreme Court of the United States agreed that the "sale" of the Black Hills had not been conducted legally. It refused, however, to return the land to the Lakota people and ordered them to accept belated financial compensation instead.

The Lakota refused, and the $100 million continues to lie in escrow, accruing interest to this day.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

February 27

On this date in 1864 Union prisoners of war began arriving at Camp Sumter, Georgia, otherwise known as Andersonville Prison. Over the next year, over 45,000 prisoners would be received at Andersonville. Due to unspeakably filthy conditions and inadequate supplies of food and clean water, more than 13,000 of those soldiers -- as well as numerous Confederate guards -- would perish of malnutrition and disease before the camp was liberated at the end of the war. Most would succumb between August and December 1864, a period that saw an average of 100 deaths per day.

By any account, Andersonville offered a squalid glimpse into hell. Sgt. David Kennedy, 9th Ohio Cavalry, wrote in his journal on 9 July 1964'
Wuld that I was an artist & had the material to paint this camp & all its horors or the tounge of some eloquent Statesman and had the privleage of expresing my mind to our hon. rulers at Washington, I should gloery to describe this hell on earth where it takes 7 of its ocupiants to make a shadow.
Clara Barton, visiting the grounds of Andersonville a year later after the camp had closed, wrote with horror of what she had seen there:
Think of thirty thousand men penned by close stockade upon twenty-six acres of ground, from which every tree and shrub had been uprooted for fuel to cook their scanty food, huddled like cattle, without shelter or blanket, half-clad and hungry, with the dreary night setting in, after a day of autumn rain. The hill-tops would not hold them all, the valley was filled with the swollen brook; seventeen feet from the stockade ran the fatal dead-line, beyond which no man might step and live. What did they do? I need not ask where did they go, for on the face of the whole green earth there was no place but this for them; but where did they place themselves? How did they live? Ay! How did they die? But this is only one feature of their suffering ; and perhaps the lightest. Of the long dazzling months when gaunt famine stalked at noon-day, and pestilence walked by night; and upon the seamed and parching earth the cooling rains fell not, I will not rust me to speak. I scarce dare think. If my heart were strong enough to draw the picture, there are thousands upon thousands all through our land too crushed and sore to look upon it. But after this, whenever any man who has lain a prisoner within the stockade of Andersonville, would tell you of his sufferings, how he fainted, scorched, drenched, hungered, sickened, was scoffled, scorged, hunted and persecuted, though the tale be long and twice told, as you would have your own wrongs appreciated, your own woes pitied, your own cries for mercy heard, I charge you, listen and believe him. However definitely he may have spoken, know that he has not told you all.
Henry Wirz, a Swiss doctor from Louisiana, served as prison commandant during that year. For his efforts, such as they were, Wirtz was hanged in November 1865. His last fourteen minutes of life were spent at the end of a rope that was too short, listening to Union soldiers taunt him with cries of “Andersonville! Andersonville!” as he slowly choked to death. Remarkably, he was the only Confederate official to be executed for war crimes.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

February 26

When the Buffalo Creek Dam burst 36 years ago today in Logan County, West Virginia, officials from Pittston Coal Company -- which owned the failed complex -- heartlessly described it as an “act of God.”

After a month of snow and two solid days of rain, the crude “gob pile” dam ruptured, pouring 132 million gallons of black waste water into Buffalo Creek Hollow, where sixteen mining communities lay in a seventeen-mile stretch of creek leading to the Guyandotta River. Beginning with the destruction of Saunders, where eighteen people died, the sludge rushed along at five miles an hour and leveled Pardee, Lorado, Stowe, Robinette, Kistler and eleven other impoverished towns. Within three hours, 125 people were dead, more than a thousand were injured, and 80 percent of the hollow’s 5000 residents were homeless, Over a third of those killed came from the town of Lundale, which was reduced to a mound of splinters. Seven of the dead -- six of whom were small children -- were never found.

Residents of the valley beneath the Buffalo Creek dam had complained for years about the structure, which many believed to be unsafe. After the disaster in 1972, investigators learned that the Pittston Coal Company had not properly licensed the dam when it was first constructed, nor did they construct an emergency drainage system ; they also learned that company officials had inspected the dam several times over the previous two days and elected not to warn anyone of their worries that it might fail. This was hardly surprising, since the company clearly did not care about its employees or their families to begin with. Cited for hundreds of safety violations and fined more than a million dollars in 1971, Pittston has paid to that point a grand total of $275. In all, $50 million worth of property damage occurred in Logan County that day -- a figure roughly equal to the $44 million in profits Pittston earned the previous year. Constructing a safer dam at Beaver Creek would have reduced those profits by perhaps $200,000.

The governor of West Virginia -- a much-despised man named Arch Moore -- put together an investigative commission made up of coal industry supporters and government officials. In protest, an independent citizens’ committee investigated the dam failure and released a report of its own.
There is a basic question raised anew by Buffalo Creek, the latest assault by the coal operators in their long slaughterhouse in death, injury and disease: Whether the people of Appalachia and West Virginia can any longer afford this senseless destruction of their lives, their land, and their democratic institutions; or whether the ownership and operation of the coal mines should be brought under democratic control to benefit all the people. All too clearly the tragedy of Buffalo Creek has torn away the mask, revealing the ugly truth that powerful coal interests dominate the government, the environment, and the West Virginia way of life to the detriment of all its citizens. Discussion and action are needed now to transform King Coal, the tyrant, into Citizen Coal, the servant of all -- before and not after another Buffalo Creek disaster.
The citizens' committee further observed that no acts of god were discernible in the disaster. After several years of legal battles on its own behalf, the Pittston Coal Company settled out of court for an amount equal to about $2400 for each of the 5000 victims of the flood, living and dead. Governor Moore eventually settled the state's suit against Pittston for a mere $1 million -- roughly ten percent of the cost of the clean-up effort, which the citizens of West Virginia paid for.

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Monday, February 25, 2008

February 25

On this date in 1836, hundreds of witnesses observed the dissection of Joice Heth, an African American woman whom Phineas T. Barnum had been displaying to live audiences for much of the previous year. Though Barnum claimed that Heth was 161 years old, it was more likely -- as the autopsy revealed -- that she was no older than 90.

An enslaved woman who had long been the property of a Kentucky family, Heth came to Barnum’s attention during the summer of 1835. At the time, she was being shown to audiences in Philadelphia on the pretense that she had actually been present at the birth of George Washington and had helped raise the nation’s eventual father figure during her years in Westmoreland County, Virginia. Her owners were, however, looking to sell Heth for a reasonable price, and after inspecting the woman and reviewing her paper trail, Barnum agreed to take possession of the blind, toothless and paralyzed woman. On August 6, 1835, the as-yet-unknown P.T. Barnum became a slaveholder. Heth cost him $1000, half of which he borrowed from a friend.

Following her purchase, Heth accompanied Barnum to New York, where she appeared for an extended run at a saloon called Niblio’s Garden. There, Heth earned about $1500 a week for her owner; during her appearances in New York, Providence, and Boston, she amused her white audiences by telling stories stories, singing hymns, answering questions from the curious, and smoking prolific quantities of cigarettes (a habit she claimed to have picked up 120 years previous). When audiences dwindled, Barnum boosted them again by claiming that Heth was in fact an “automaton” made of rubber and whale-bone.

After nearly seven months in the service of P.T. Barnum, Joice Heth died on February 19, 1836. Though autopsies were not commonly performed on whites, doctors used the procedure much more frequently on the bodies of slaves, paupers and criminals. A few days after Heth’s passing, the New York Evening Star applauded Barnum’s willingness to subject the elderly woman to the knife.
We can only say that an opportunity for illustrating the effects of such extreme old age upon the human system is not likely to occur again very soon, and that the investigation, conducted by a competent hand, would doubtless form an instructive and valuable record in anatomical science. The old woman's soul, we trust, is quite comfortable in heaven, where, perhaps, distinctions of color are of less consequence than they are here; and if the surgeons, by dissecting her body, can trace the causes of her having been so long getting thither, it might be useful to those who are in more haste. But, independently of this consideration, the examinations of the anatomy of very aged persons, affords one of the most curious and instructive studies in the science. The immediate cause of the old woman's death is said to be a severe cold which she caught about a week ago; but she was treated with the utmost attention and care, and died with perfect tranquility.
The next day, the autopsy of Joice Heth revealed a woman who was generally quite healthy except for the tuberculosis in her lungs.



Friday, February 22, 2008

February 22

On 22 February 1943, shortly after the German defeat at Stalingrad, three members of the White Rose -- a German anti-war group comprised of students at Munich University -- were tried by a special German court and beheaded. Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans, and fellow student Christoph Probst had been captured after a janitor witnessed them scattering leaflets in one of the university buildings on February 18, the night of Joseph Goebbels “total war” speech at the Sportpalast. Probst, Hans Scholl, and several other men in the group had all served in the German military and had been horrified by what that witnessed on the French and Russian fronts. Beginning in June 1942, the group composed a series of essays, which they distributed by the thousands across the country; couriers delivered copies to Stuttgart, Cologne, Vienna, Freiburg, Chemnitz, Hamburg and Berlin.

In their first manifesto, the White Rose observed that
Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be governed without opposition by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct. It is certain that today every honest German is ashamed of his government. Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes - crimes that infinitely outdistance every human measure - reach the light of day? If the German people are already so corrupted and spiritually crushed that they do not raise a hand, frivolously trusting in a questionable faith in the lawful order of history; if they surrender man’s highest principle, that which raises him above all other God’s creatures, his free will; if they abandon the will to take decisive action and turn the wheel of history and thus subject it to their own rational decision; if they are so devoid of all individuality, have already gone so far along the road toward turning into a spiritless and cowardly mass - then, yes, they deserve their downfall.
The February 22 executions were followed by two more in July and a sixth in October; other friends and collaborators were sentenced to prison terms that were interrupted by the end of the war they so courageously opposed. Christoph Probst left behind a widow and three children, the youngest of whom had been born a month before his execution. In summer 1943, English planes dropped millions of copies of the group’s sixth manifesto across the German landscape.

One year to the day after the first White Rose beheadings, American bombers from the 8th Air Force, 446th bomber group accidentally bombed Nijmegen, Arnhem, Enschede and Deventer -- four Dutch towns that had the misfortune of being located a few kilometers from the German border. Bad weather had caused confusion during the high-altitude daytime raid, and several bridges and railyards were mistaken for German targets. Nearly 800 people died in Nijmegen as a consequence of the error, while several hundred more perished in the other three towns.



Thursday, February 21, 2008

February 21

Incas, a Carolina parakeet held captive at the Cincinnati Zoo, passed away on this date in 1918, less than a year after the death of his partner, Lady Jane. With Incas’ passing, the species Conuropsis carolinensis ceased to exist; it had been the only native species of parrot in North America, nesting in large trees from Florida to the upper Great Plains. When early 19th century deforestation reduced the birds’ access to cockleburs -- the species’ main source of food -- the birds turned upon the crops that were grown on the plantations and farms where their habitat used to be. In retaliation, farmers shot the Carolina parakeet in extraordinary quantities. To their ultimate disadvantage, carolinensis would swarm and circle over the slain bodies of their compatriots; this allowed even the least skilled shooters to destroy an entire flock in a matter of minutes. For many years in the mid-19th century, parakeet killers were able to sell the birds to hat-makers, who valued them for their attractive green and yellow feathers. By the 1880s the species had been diminished perilously; disease helped finish them off.

Forty-seven years after the extinction of the Carolina parakeet, Malcolm X was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, where he was preparing to deliver a speech before an audience of 400 people. Although he was shot over a dozen times, it was a single shotgun blast to the chest that killed him. Three men -- former colleagues of Malcolm’s when he was with the Nation of Islam -- were later charged in the shooting, but conclusive evidence has never been put forth to explain who fired the fatal shot.

Herman Ferguson, who worked on a number of youth projects with Malcolm X, was in attendance at the Audubon and recalled the assassination years later.
As I glanced over in the middle rows . . . two brothers had jumped to their feet. One brother was facing another brother, who was backing off from him, and they both had their hands in their pockets. One of them said, "Get your hands out of my pocket, nigger," very loud, and everybody could hear this, and the place got quiet. Malcolm stepped out from behind the podium and took a step toward the stage, and leaned forward and said, "cool it brothers and sisters" . . . and as he started to straighten up, there was a loud blast that filled that auditorium with the sound of a weapon going off. Malcolm straightened up, and his hand came up, and he stiffened. . . . The shotgun blast was fired at him by one of the assassins . . . Then a fusillade of shots rang out . . . the sound of heavy caliber pistols like they were 45s, smaller caliber pistols like they were 38s., and this kept up for several seconds. And I remember saying, “If they would just stop firing, maybe he could survive this.
As Malcolm X lay dying, he was held by his friend Yuri Kochiyama, a Japanese-American activist, had moved to Harlem with her husband in 1960 and befriended Malcolm during the last two years of his life. Kochiyama, who had been interned at Jerome, Arkansas during World War II, believed that Malcolm X spoke on behalf of people of color everywhere. Malcolm X and Yuri Kochiyama share the same birthday, May 19.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

February 20

On 20 February 1927, humanity was punished with the birth of Roy Cohn, a helpless, squealing neonate who would grow up to be a lawyer and one of the worst public figures of the second half of the 20th century.

Quite justifiably, Cohn hated himself, though not for the right reasons. He might have found fault with himself for being a ruthless, unethical jingo who went to his grave believing Richard Nixon to be a model American. Instead, he secretly loathed his homosexuality and took great (though unsuccessful) pains to disguise his gay identity from the rest of the world. As a 24-year-old lawyer, he secured the notorious convictions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, alleged Soviet spies who would later die for their crimes in the electric chair. As chief counsel in the Senate hearings led by Joesph McCarthy, Cohn hounded accused communists and took special delight in exposing the closeted lives of young gay men whose names were brought before the committee. Roy Cohn enriched himself by ruining others. He defended John Gotti and represented Donald Trump. A ferocious opponent of gay rights, he died of AIDS in 1986, insisting to the bitter end that he was suffering merely from liver cancer.


It’s been five years since a pyrotechnic error at a Rhode Island nightclub led to the deaths of 100 people. On 20 February 2003, the 1980s hair metal band Great White took the stage at The Station in West Warwick, Rhode Island; half a minute into their opening number, one of the gerbs -- cylinders that shoot columns of sparks -- set fire to the foam padding on the walls behind the stage.

The padding, which was not actual fireproof acoustical foam, instantly burst into flames and poured deadly fumes into the air. Remarkably, many in the crowd initially believed the fire was part of the show and did not recognize the fire for the danger it was. When the band stopped playing, singer Jack Russell observed that “this ain’t good.” Within two minutes, the entire club was in flames -- as the 400 people in attendance tried to escape, many became trapped in the hallway leading to the main entrance. Others managed to find the other three exits, while still more crawled through windows. One out of every four people at the show were killed, including the band’s lead guitarist.

A federal investigation later concluded that a simple overhead sprinkler would have doused the fire within seconds. Because the building dated back to the 1930s, however, it was not subject to more recent fire and safety codes, and the owners elected not to retrofit the club. The flammable padding that fueled the blaze had cost around $600. For twice the expense -- an additional $6 per victim -- the club could have purchased fire-retardant material.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

February 19

Four hundred and eight years ago today, the most violent explosion in the recorded history of South America occured when Huaynaputina blew its top in Peru. Seven cubic kilometers of debris were propelled from the volcano on 19 February 1600, with a plinian column extending perhaps 25-35 kilometers into the atmosphere. A thick blanket of ash was scattered across 360,000 square miles. No one knows how many villages -- or how many people -- were entombed by the event.

More precise figures, however, are available for the internment of Japanese Americans -- a relocation program authorized by Franklin Roosevelt on this date in 1942. Citing the need to defend the nation against saboteurs and spies who did not in fact exist, Roosevelt utilized World War I-era legislation to authorize the Secretary of War and his designated commanders
to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.
Calls for the mass imprisonment of Japanese Americans began, quite predictably, after the Pearl Harbor attack two months previously. Political leaders, journalists and ordinary citizens acted symbiotically, whipping one another into a froth of racist anger that helped persuade Roosevelt -- whose own opinion of Asians was quite low -- to issue Executive Order 9066. Although concrete proof of disloyalty among Japanese Americans was nowhere to be found, the momentum in favor of internment was extraordinary. John DeWitt, head of Western Defense Command (WDC) offered the truly ingenious argument that the absence of sabotage in fact proved the existence of a conspiracy. According to his logic, only the Japanese government itself could exert such control over Japanese saboteurs, encouraging them to wait until the nation’s guard was down before launching their campaign of terror.

Over the next half-decade, 120,000 innocent people were removed from the West Coast and relocated to ten camps in the bleakest regions of the country. Several thousand additional Japanese who had come to the US from Latin America were held at eight camps run by the Department of Justice. Nearly two-thirds of those subject to Executive Order 9066 were American citizens by virtue of birth.

A similar order was issued by the Canadian government five days later.

Charles Kikuchi, an American of Japanese ancestry, was a graduate student at the University of California when the US entered the Second World War. He had worked for the National Youth Administration until 1941 and later served in the US Army. In a diary he kept throughout 1942, Kikuchi documented the process by which so many were deprived of their rights and dignity. In an entry dated April 30, Kikuchi wryly described the expulsion of Japanese Americans from Berkeley:
It certainly is degrading . . . . The Amry Lieutenant over there doesn't want any of the photographers to take pictures of these miserable people waiting for the Greyhound bus because he thinks that the American public might get a sympathetic attitude toward them . . . .

I understand that we are going to live in the horse stalls. I hope that the Army has the courtesy to remove the manure first.
Executive Order 9066 was not formally rescinded until Gerald Ford's presidency, over 30 years later. Compensation for the survivors of the camps would be delayed an additional decade.

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Monday, February 18, 2008

February 18

On this date in 1861, the newly-formed Confederate States of America inaugurated its first and only president, Jefferson Finis Davis, in Montgomery, Alabama. The inaugural ceremonies took place exactly two weeks after the representatives from the first six states to depart the Union -- South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida and Louisiana -- met to form a nation based on the inalienable right of white people to own black people.

On the morning of February 18, a slave-driven, six-horse coach lined with silk and saffron delivered Davis, his vice president Alexander Stephens, and Rev. Basil Manly -- who would deliver the ceremony’s benediction -- to the capitol building in Montgomery. There, Davis delivered one of the few speeches in his public life that did not mention the institution of slavery. Instead, he elaborated on the southern case for secession and announced that the southern states had not actually left the Union; he declared rather that the Confederacy embodied the “true meaning” of the original US constitution which the Northern states had since abandoned.

He concluded with one of the more unintentionally ironic moments of optimism in American history.
It is joyous, in the midst of perilous times, to look around upon a people united in heart, where one purpose of high resolve animates and actuates the whole-where the sacrifices to be made are not weighed in the balance against honor and right and liberty and equality. Obstacles may retard, they cannot long prevent the progress of a movement sanctified by its justice, and sustained by a virtuous people. Reverently let us invoke the God of our fathers to guide and protect us in our efforts to perpetuate the principles which, by his blessing, they were able to vindicate, establish and transmit to their posterity, and with a continuance of His favor, ever gratefully acknowledged, we may hopefully look forward to success, to peace, and to prosperity.
More than 630,000 corpses later, Davis would, we assume, have offered a slightly modified understanding of the favors dispensed by his God.



Thursday, February 14, 2008

February 14

On Valentine's Day 1945, the 91st and 398th Bomber Groups of the US Air Force accidentally unleashed a 3-minute barrage of bombs on Prague. After becoming disoriented, the bomber crews allegedly mistook the city for the German city Dresden, which was then being firebombed by British and American forces 100 kilometers away; the bombers, the US initially claimed, had only dropped leaflets on the city. Over 700 Czech civilians died in the raid, while an additional 1200 were wounded. In his diary, the American engineer and tail gunner George Forsyth wrote the following
It took us three days to complete this mission. We bombed the Capitol of Czechoslovakia, Prague. We were supposed to go to Dresden. We ran out of gas on the way home and landed at Brussels. We really had a lot of fun there. We went to town in our flying clothes.
Meantime, the bombing of Dresden, which concluded on February 15, claimed tens of thousands of lives.


As the bubonic plague began its catastrophic depopulation of Europe in 1348, Jews were scapegoated for the horrific disease that eventually killed 25 million people. On the orders of Amadaeus VI, the Count of Savoy, Jews living along the shores of Lake Geneva were tortured and predictably confessed to the erroneous charges and named others whom they claimed as co-conspirators in the fictitious plot to poison Christendom. News of the confessions spread throughout Europe, and mobs organized and carried out the predictable reprisals. In Strasbourg, the mass murder was organized by craftsmen and the nobility, whose economic resentments were at least as strong as their religious bigotry. On St. Valentine’s Day 1349, the city’s Jews were burnt in their own cemetery. As Jacob von Königshofen, a Swiss historian who would have been seven years old at the time, wrote years later,
There were about two thousand people of them. Those who wanted to baptize themselves were spared. . . . Many small children were taken out of the fire and baptized against the will of their fathers and mothers. And everything that was owed to the Jews was cancelled, and the Jews had to surrender all pledges and notes that they had taken for debts. The council, however, took the cash that the Jews possessed and divided it among the working-men proportionately. The money was indeed the thing that killed the Jews. If they had been poor and if the feudal lords had not been in debt to them, they would not have been burnt. After this wealth was divided among the artisans some gave their share to the Cathedral or to the Church on the advice of their confessors.

Thus were the Jews burnt at Strasbourg, and in the same year in all the cities of the Rhine, whether Free Cities or Imperial Cities or cities belonging to the lords. In some towns they burnt the Jews after a trial, in others, without a trial. In some cities the Jews themselves set fire to their houses and cremated themselves.
After the mass immolation, the magistrates of Strasbourg banished Jews from the city for a century. Twenty years later, that decision was rescinded.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

February 13

On this date in 1692, Scottish forces acting on the authority of the English King William slaughtered nearly 40 Highlanders from the MacDonald clan in Glencoe. The massacre was a consequence of the clan’s delayed pledge of allegiance to William, who had taken the throne in 1688 when the Scottish King James VII (James II of England) was ousted from power. William had offered a pardon to Highland clans who took the oath before January 1, 1692, but the Glencoe chief, Alistair Maclain, was several days late in delivering his oath. Nevertheless, he believed he had fulfilled the spirit of the ultimatum and returned to Glencoe with no apprehension of the horrors to come.

A month later, 120 men from the Earl of Argyll’s foot regiment arrived in Glencoe, ostensibly to collect a routine household tax. The troops were commanded by a man named Robert Campbell, whose property and livestock had been looted several years before by a company of men from Glencoe returning from a failed military campaign on behalf of the recently deposed Scottish King. Campbell and his men were nevertheless treated with customary hospitality, and they never disclosed the true nature of their mission. On February 12 word arrived from Campbell’s superior officer that the punishment of the MacDonald clan was to commence the next morning. The orders read:
You are hereby ordered to fall upon the Rebels, the MacDonalds of Glencoe, and put all to the sword under 70. You are to have especial care, that the Old Fox and his Sons do upon no account escape your Hands, you are to secure all the avenues that no man can escape: this you are to put in Execution at five a Clock in the Morning precisely, and by that time or very shortly after it, I’ll strive to be at you with a stronger party. If I do not come at five, you are not to tarry for me but fall on. This is by the King’s Special command, for the good and safety of the country, that these miscreants may be cut off root and branch.
Early on the morning of February 13, Campbell’s men -- true to their orders -- fell upon Glencoe with the intention of killing several hundred people. Although most of the glen’s inhabitants were able to flee to the hills, Campbell’s troops managed to kill 38 people initially, including the chief and his wife, whose rings were bitten from her hand. When bad weather delayed the arrival of the promised reinforcements, the soldiers burned Glencoe and absconded with the livestock. When a snowstorm beset the region, another 40 of the MacDonald clan -- mostly women and children -- died of exposure.

An official inquiry into the Glencoe massacre resulted in a whitewash; with higher officials, including King William himself, exonerated, the massacre was widely and erroneously interpreted as a mere instance of clan rivalry rather than a deliberate act of state policy. Hard feelings about the events of 1692 survive to this day.

Over 400 years before the slaughter at Glencoe, an even larger massacre took place thousands of miles to the southeast in a city called Baghdad. There, on 13 February 1258, hundreds of thousands of warriors under the leadership of Hulagu Khan -- Ghengis Khan’s grandson -- rampaged through the city as the Mongol armies swept westward from Persia toward Egypt. The caliph al-Musta’sim, who had surrendered the city three days before after boasting that the Mongols would not stand a chance, was forced to watch Baghdad’s ruin before he was rolled up into a carpet and trampled by horses. Estimates of the final body count range from less than 100,000 to nearly a million. Much of the city was put to the torch, including the Grand Library; so many books clotted the Tigris, it was later claimed, a horse could have crossed with little difficulty.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

February 12

Lady Jane Grey, the so-called “Nine Day Queen,” lost her head at the Tower of London 454 years ago today.

Grey, a devout worshipper in the Protestant Church of England, was installed on the throne following the death of Edward VI; to her supporters, her chief qualification was that she was not Mary Tudor, her own cousin. Tudor, one of the daughters of the former King Henry VIII, was a committed Catholic, and her faith brought great anxiety to those who feared the return of the English crown to influence of the popish devils. Through a complex series of machinations devised almost entirely by her father-in-law, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, Jane Grey was announced as the successor to Edward VI following his July 1553 death. Unfortunately for the new Queen, popular support for Mary -- her Catholicism notwithstanding -- led quickly to Grey's replacement barely a week after her reign began.

Imprisoned in the Tower with her husband, Guildford Dudley, Lady Jane was convicted and sentenced to die for treason in November 1553. No one, however, expected Queen Mary to allow the sentence to proceed. Indeed, Jane Grey would quite probably have enjoyed a long -- and eventually free -- life had not her father, the Duke of Suffolk, attempted a revolt against the new Queen Mary in January 1554. Somewhat reluctantly, the Queen accepted her advisers' counsel that so long as Jane Grey remained alive, she would serve as a beacon for zealous, rebellious protestants. Grey -- who had nothing to do with her father's plot -- was executed on 12 February 1554, an hour after her husband was similarly beheaded. After she was escorted to the scaffold and blindfolded, Jane Grey delivered her last address to the small audience:

Before God and the face of you, good Christian people, this day I pray you all, to bear me witness that I die a true Christian woman, and that I look to be saved by none other means, but only by the mercy of God, in the merits of the blood of his only son, Jesus Christ. And I confess, when I did know the word of God, I neglected the same, loved myself and the world, and thereto the plague or punishment is happily and worthily happened unto me for my sins. And yet, I thank God of His goodness that he hath thus given me a time and respite to repent. And now good people, while I am alive, I pray you to assist me with your prayers.'
After her prayer, Jane Grey was blindfolded and made to kneel. Unable to find the block of wood where she was to rest her head for the last time, the young girl began to panic. After a bystander helped the condemned to the right spot, her executioner finished the job. Jane Grey was 16 years old.


Today we remember the hapless epicure Adolf Frederick I, who reigned as King of Sweden from 1751 until his death in on this date in 1771. His two decades on the throne were significant only to the extent that he presided helplessly over the decline of the Swedish kingdom. As sovereign, Frederick I was almost completely powerless and functioned more or less as an ornament while the riksdag managed the affairs of state, which included Sweden’s commitment to the Seven Years’ War -- the first truly global war in human history, provoked by a poisonous mixture of European internal politics and colonialism.

Among his passions in life, Frederick was an avid collector of biological specimens. During his years as the Swedish crown prince, he served as an important resource for Carl Linnaeus, who studied the prince’s cabinet while sorting out the details of his famous taxonomic system. On February 12, 1771, Frederick’s two decades of idle monarchy came to an end. That night, he gathered his final collection of specimens, which included a titanic feast of lobster, caviar, sour cabbage, smoked herring and champagne. For dessert, the king gobbled fourteen servings of semla, a traditional wheat pastry usually served in warm milk. He died that night -- propped up on Queen Louisa Ulrica’s knees -- of a massive digestive event.

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Friday, February 08, 2008

February 8

The epic, racist melodrama Birth of a Nation premiered 93 years ago today. It was shown to a Los Angeles audience at the lavish Clune Auditorium on 8 February 1915; the Los Angeles Philharmonic accompanied the film, which spanned 12 reels and was seen by 2500 people on its opening night.

The silent film was directed by David Wark Griffith, who had been born to a family of former slaveholders in Oldham County, Kentucky. During the Civil War, Griffith's father Jacob organized the 1st Kentucky Cavalry and eventually ascended to the rank of colonel. During the war, the Griffith estate was burned to the ground. When the young filmmaker discovered a 1905 novel by Thomas Dixon entitled The Clansman, he was inspired “to tell the truth about the War between the States. It hasn't been told accurately in history books. Only the winning side in a war ever gets to tell its story”

One historian whom Griffith believed had narrated the tale properly was President Woodrow Wilson, who had befriended Thomas Dixon while they were both students at Johns Hopkins University. Wilson’s five-folume History of the American People (1902) depicted the rise of the Ku Klux Klan -- the subject of Dixon’s novel and Griffith’s film -- as a necessary stage in the pacification and redemption of the South.

As Dixon himself described his novel,
In the darkest hour of the life of the South, when her wounded people lay helpless amid rags and ashes under the beak and talon of the Vulture, suddenly from the mists of the mountains appeared a white cloud the size of a man's hand. It grew until its mantle of mystery enfolded the stricken earth and sky. An ‘Invisible Empire’ had risen from the field of Death and challenged the Visible to mortal combat.

How the young South, led by the reincarnated souls of the Clansmen of Old Scotland, went forth under this cover and against overwhelming odds, daring exile, imprisonment, and a felon's death, and saved the life of a people, forms one of the most dramatic chapters in the history of the Aryan race.
On 18 February 1915, Birth of a Nation became the first film ever to be screened at the White House. Among the attendees that night was Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, Edward White, who had never seen a motion picture before. In Thomas Dixon’s biography, Southern Horizons, the novelist uses third person voice to tell the story of how he persuaded Justice Edwards to attend the White House screening.
”You tell the true story of the Klan?',” White asked.
“Yes - for the first time.”
White removed his glasses and pushed his book aside, as he leaned towards Dixon and said in a low tone: “I was a member of the Klan, sir. Through many a dark night, I walked my sentinel's beat through the ugliest streets of New Orleans with a rifle on my shoulder. You’ve told the true story of that uprising of outraged manhood?”
“In a way I'm sure you'll approve,” the Reverend replied.
“I'll be there!” said White.
After Griffith’s last film, The Struggle, flopped in 1931, he became a recluse. He died in the Knickerbocker Hotel in Los Angeles in July 1948, seven months after President Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces of the United States.



Thursday, February 07, 2008

February 7

On this date in 1968, an American Army major explained that “it became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.”

The town to which the officer referred was Ben Tre, in Kien Hoa province, where American and South Vietnamese forces battled NLF fighters for several days as the Tet Offensive ground onward. At battle’s end, over 1000 people were dead and more than 10,000 rendered homeless, as US artillery and jet fighters reduced half the city to rubble. At one point during the battle for Ben Tre, fighting was halted temporarily as both sides dumped the bodies of the dead into the Mekong River.

One hundred and thirty six years before the destruction of Ben Tre was concluded, American warships leveled a Sumatran town -- not to save it, but rather to avenge an attack on the merchant vessel The Friendship by pirates the previous year. Most of the American crew were killed during that initial February 1831 assault, and their entire cargo of spices was removed from the ship. During his third annual massage to Congress, delivered in December 1831, President Andrew Jackson announced that “a daring outrage” had been committed by “piratical perpetrators belonging to tribes in such a state of society that the usual course of proceedings between civilized nations could not be pursued.” Having determined that negotiations were likely impossible with the savages, Jackson dispatched a naval frigate to Kuala Batu with orders to “inflict chastisement” upon the wretches who lived there.

On 7 February 1832 the Potomac, sailing under the command of John Downes, dispatched 300 men to battle the Malaysian pirates, who proved little match for the US forces. Nearly 200 pirates were killed, while the Potomac lost two men and suffered 11 wounded. Two days later, Downes ordered the shelling of the rest of the village, killing another 300 innocent men, women and children. Although some Americans were outraged by the collective punishment of the people of Kuala Batu, Andrew Jackson giddily declared that the “chastisement” had assured “increased respect for our flag and increased security for our commerce.”

The attack on Kuala Batu was the first military intervention in Asia by the United States.

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

February 6

Edward Geary Lansdale was born 100 years ago today.

He was the sort of fellow for whom the term "blowback" was coined. During his long career with the Office of Strategic Services and its successor, the CIA, Lansdale is best known for his role as an adviser to the South Vietnamese government from 1954 to 1957. A specialist in counterinsurgency, Lansdale had previously enjoyed success in the Philippines, where he aided the former American colony in putting down the Huk rebellion during the early 1950s. Along with the 1953 Iranian coup and the toppling of Guatemala's elected government in 1954, the Huk rebellion persuaded the Eisenhower administration that the United States could impose its will anywhere it chose, with minimal cost and at a volume that was barely audible to the American public.

Following the vicious counterinsurgency campaign in the Philippines, Lansdale and his advocates hoped their success might be duplicated in Vietnam, where the French had just finished a catastrophic effort to retain their imperial footprint in Asia. Employing “psychological warfare,” Lansdale headed the Saigon Military Mission, a classified group of about a dozen United States soldiers and intelligence agents who spread rumors, counterfeited documents, and organized a campaign of sabotage throughout the North, all of which was intended to disrupt a vote on the reunification of Vietnam, which the 1954 Geneva Accords required. (Although the United States had participated in the negotiations, Eisenhower administration had ultimately chosen not to sign the agreement.) As the northern regions of Vietnam were transitioning from French colonial rule to a communist-dominated government, Lansdale hoped to flood the South with anti-communist refugees who could bolster the government being created and supported by the US. Lansdale’s efforts bore fruit, as more than a million people fled the north. Millions more would flee the region over the next two decades.

During his years in Saigon, Lansdale also helped develop an army that would -- he expected -- be capable of defending itself without the need for direct American intervention. He boosted the political fortunes of Ngo Dinh Diem, the corrupt autocrat whom the United States regarded as the best hope for a politically independent South Vietnam. Although Lansdale had left Southeast Asia in 1957, he earned the trust and respect of the Kennedy administration, which in 1961 took his advice and accelerated its support for Diem. By the end of Kennedy's first year in office, he had dedicated more than 15,000 American soldiers and military advisers to the cause.

By this time, Lansdale had moved on to other projects. Among other things, he oversaw the efforts -- known as Operation Mongoose -- to topple Fidel Castro, with whom the Kennedy brothers were especially obsessed. Over the next year, as the US began to take full custody of the war in Vietnam, Lansdale hired Cuban gangsters and drug-runners among various other unsavories to carry out raids against the Castro government. The Soviet Union responded by offering to place medium-range ballistic missiles on Cuban soil, a decision that helped bring the two superpowers to the brink of nuclear war.

During the 1975 Church Committee hearings, which exposed intelligence abuses over the previous several decades, a colleague of Lansdale’s, Thomas Parrot, described one of the battier schemes put forward by Lansdale’s office during the Cuban project.
He had a wonderful plan for getting rid of Castro. This plan consisted of spreading the word that the Second Coming of Christ was imminent and that Christ was against Castro [who] was anti-Christ. And you would spread this word around Cuba, and then on whatever date it was, there would be a manifestation of this thing. And at that time -- this is absolutely true -- and at that time just over the horizon there would be an American submarine which would surface off of Cuba and send up some star shells. And this would be the manifestation of the Second Coming and Castro would be overthrown . . . Well, some wag called this operation -- and somebody dubbed this -- Elimination by Illumination.
Lansdale was eliminated by natural causes in February 1987. John Kennedy and Ngo Dinh Diem were eliminated by assassins in November 1963. Fidel Castro has managed, albeit barely, to hang on for quite a bit longer.



Tuesday, February 05, 2008

February 5

It was 50 years ago today that a 7600-pound hydrogen bomb was lost in the waters near the coast of Savannah, Georgia. The bomb was being carried by a B-47 aircraft when it collided with an F-86 fighter at 37,000 feet on February 5, 1958; the bomber was damaged in the collision but was still able to fly. When the craft was unable to reduce its airspeed enough to ensure a safe landing, its crew was instructed to release the nuclear payload near Tybee Island, which was inhabited at the time by 3500 people. For several days after the incident, the Air Force refused to acknowledge that it had dropped anything into Georgia’s coastal waters. When the accident was disclosed more fully, the Air Force continued for decades to insist that it was merely a “simulated” hydrogen bomb that had been lost. In 2000, however, a retired Air Force pilot discovered a declassified document from the mid-1960s that listed the so-called “Tybee bomb” as a complete, functioning weapon.

In spite of its denials, the Air Force was quite eager to find the weapon after the incident in February 1958. Unfortunately, two months of searching the area around Tybee Island turned up no clues as to the whereabouts of the bomb. On 16 April 1958, the weapon was declared “irretrievably lost.” It remains somewhere in Wassaw Sound, quite likely interred in 20 feet or more of soft mud. The Tybee bomb is one of four nuclear weapons that have gone missing from the American arsenal since 1945.


On 5 February 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell appeared before the United Nations Security Council to present the United States’ case for disarming Saddam Hussein. Among the many fabulous details conveyed by the general that day, Powell warned that
our conservative estimate is that Iraq today has a stockpile of between 100 and 500 tons of chemical weapons agent. That is enough agent to fill 16,000 battlefield rockets.

Even the low end of 100 tons of agent would enable Saddam Hussein to cause mass casualties across more than 100 square miles of territory, an area nearly 5 times the size of Manhattan.

Let me remind you that, of the 122 millimeter chemical warheads that the U.N. inspectors found recently, this discovery could very well be, as has been noted, the tip of the submerged iceberg. The question before us, all my friends, is when will we see the rest of the submerged iceberg?
Powell has since described the speech as a "blot" on his record and the "lowest point in my life."



Monday, February 04, 2008

February 4

On this date in 1899, a three-year long undeclared war broke out between the United States and the peoples of the Philippines. At issue was the status of the islands, which had been Spanish colonial property until the United States defeated its crumbling European rival in a brief war the previous summer. Although Filipino nationalists had been waging a campaign for independence since the early 1890s, President William McKinley insisted that sovereignty over the Philippines had transferred without interruption to the US. A month to the day before the US-Philippine War began, McKinley declared that the official American policy toward the Philippines would be “benevolent assimilation,” meaning that the islands would be offered “protection” and “civilization” in exchange for their submission to American rule.

Those who elected not to accept the new arrangement would be corrected, he added, by the “strong arm of authority.”

The initial shots came from three American sentries, who fired them in defense of a bridge in San Juan del Monte, a city on the outskirts of Manila. One of the men, a Private William W. Grayson, recounted the incident two years later:
About eight o’clock, Miller and I were cautiously pacing our district. We came to a fence and were trying to see what the Filipinos were up to.

Suddenly, near at hand, on our left, there was a low but unmistakable Filipino outpost signal whistle. It was immediately answered by a similar whistle about twenty-five yards to the right. Then a red lantern flashed a signal from blockhouse number 7. We had never seen such a sign used before. In a moment, something rose up slowly in front of us. It was a Filipino. I yelled “Halt!” and made it pretty loud, for I was accustomed to challenging the officer of the guard in approved military style. I challenged him with another loud “halt!” Then he shouted “halto!” to me. Well, I thought the best thing to do was to shoot him. He dropped. If I didn’t kill him, I guess he died of fright. Two Filipinos sprang out of the gateway about 15 feet from us. I called “halt!” and Miller fired and dropped one. I saw that another was left. Well, I think I got my second Filipino that time.
By the next morning, fighting had erupted throughout the island of Luzon; from there, a brutal and costly guerilla war took the lives of at least 4300 Americans and as many as a million Filipinos -- nearly all of whom were civilians culled by disease and famine. During the conflict, the United States destroyed villages, tortured captives, and herded civilians into concentration camps.

Inspired by the United States’ new imperial project, the English poet Rudyard Kipling wrote a famous bit of verse titled “The White Man’s Burden.”

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Friday, February 01, 2008

February 1

On 1 February 1968, several days into the Tet Offensive, Lt. Colonel Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of the South Vietnamese police, shot a captured member of the National Liberation Front in the head at close range. Nguyen Van Lam, also known as Captain Bay Lop, had been captured by South Vietnamese forces after a battle at a Buddhist pagoda in the Chinese section of Saigon. Hands tied behind his back and his face visibly swollen, Lam was marched down the street.

American photographer Eddie Adams and Vietnamese cameraman Vo Su -- who was working for NBC -- had been photographing and filming the battle and watched as two South Vietnamese Marines brought the staggering captive toward them. Adams described the scene years later:
When they were close -- maybe five feet away -- the soldiers stopped and backed away. I saw a man walk into my camera viewfinder from the left. He took a pistol out of his holster and raised it. I had no idea he would shoot. It was common to hold a pistol to the head of prisoners during questioning. So I prepared to make that picture -- the threat, the interrogation. But it didn't happen. The man just pulled a pistol out of his holster, raised it to the VC's head and shot him in the temple. I made a picture at the same time.
The frightful still image of the summary execution quickly became emblematic of the American War in Vietnam, at least to its critics. For the remainder of both of their lives, however, Adams -- whose photo was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1969 -- defended Loan, whom he believed was destroyed by the image as well.

Several months after the shooting of Nguyen Van Lem, Loan was severely injured in a battle near a Saigon bridge; one of his legs had to be amputated. He fled to the United States after the fall of Saigon and opened a pizza restaurant in Burke, Virginia, which he operated until when his identity was publicized in 1991 and his business suffered. Loan died of cancer seven years later. Adams passed away in 2004 from ALS. As for Nguyen Van Lam, his body disappeared after the shooting thirty-nine years ago today and was never found.