April 30, 1943 Operation Mincemeat

On April 30, 1943, Lieutenant Norman Jewell, commanding the submarine HMS Seraph (P219), read the 39th Psalm over the man who never was.  With briefcase containing “secret” documents padlocked to his wrist, the homeless man who in death would help defeat Nazi Germany, was gently pushed into the Atlantic, off the Spanish coast.

The idea was a head fake.  Disinformation intended to make the Nazi government believe that their adversaries intended to invade Sardinia and Greece in 1943, rather than the real targets of North Africa and Sicily.  British Military Intelligence called it “Operation Mincemeat”.

The London coroner obtained the body of 34-year-old Glyndwr Michael, on condition that his real identity never be revealed. The Welshman had died of rat poison, though it’s uncertain whether the death was accidental or suicide. This particular poison came in paste form, and was spread on bread crusts to attract rats.  The homeless man may have died, merely because he was hungry.

Naval identity cardBe that as it may, this cause of death is difficult to detect,  The condition of the corpse was close to that of someone who had died at sea, of hypothermia and drowning. The dead man’s parents were both deceased, there were no known relatives and the man died friendless. So it was that Glyndwr Michael became the “Man who Never Was”.

The next step was to create a “past” for the dead man. Michael became “(Acting) Major William “Bill” Martin, Royal Marines”, born 1907, in Cardiff, Wales, assigned to Headquarters, Combined Operations. As a Royal Marine, “Martin” could wear battle dress rather than a naval uniform. This was important, because Naval uniforms at the time were tailor-made by Gieves & Hawkes of Saville Row. Authorities could hardly ask Gieves’ tailors to measure a corpse, without raising eyebrows.

The rank of acting major made the fictional William Martin senior enough to be entrusted with sensitive documents, but not so prominent that anyone would expect to know him. The name “Martin” was chosen because there were several Martins of about that rank, already serving in the Royal Marines.

PamA “fiancée” was furnished for Major Martin, in the form of  MI5 clerk “Pam”. “Major Martin” carried her snapshot, along with two love letters, and a jeweler’s bill for a diamond engagement ring.

In keeping with his rank, Martin was given some good quality underwear, to increase his authenticity. Extremely difficult to obtain due to rationing, the underwear was purloined from the Master of the New College Oxford, who’d been run over and killed by a truck.

Made to look like the victim of a plane crash, the plan was to drop the body at sea, at a place where the tide would bring it ashore and into German Hands.

On April 30, 1943, Lieutenant Norman Jewell, commanding the submarine HMS Seraph (P219), read the 39th Psalm over the man who never was.  With briefcase containing “secret” documents padlocked to his wrist, the homeless man who in death would help defeat Nazi Germany, was gently pushed into the Atlantic, off the Spanish coast.

HMS Seraph

The hoax worked out, nicely. A Spanish fisherman recovered the body and a Nazi agent intercepted the papers, as intended. Mussolini insisted correctly that the allied attack would come through Sicily, but Hitler wasn’t buying it. He had swallowed the Mincemeat scam whole, insisting that the Sicilian attack was nothing but a diversion from the real objective.

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When the Allies invaded Sicily on the 9th of July, the Germans were so convinced it was a feint that forces were kept out of action for a full two full weeks. After that, it was far too late to effect the outcome.

The non-existent Major William Martin was buried with full military honors in the Huelva cemetery of Nuestra Señora. The headstone reads:
“William Martin, born 29 March 1907, died 24 April 1943, beloved son of John Glyndwyr Martin and the late Antonia Martin of Cardiff, Wales, Dulce et Decorum est pro Patria Mori, R.I.P.”  “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”

In 1998, the British Government revealed Martin’s true identity, and “Glyndwr Michael; Served as Major William Martin, RM”, was added to the gravestone.

There is a war memorial in the small South Wales town of Aberbargoed, in memory of Glyndwr Michael. A plaque is inscribed with the Welsh phrase “Y Dyn Na Fu Erioed”. It means “The Man Who Never Was”.

Man who Never Was

April 29, 1915  The Wipers Times

My favorite among the classified ads has to be the “Flammenwerfer” (Flame Thrower). “Guaranteed absolutely harmless.”  “Instructive – Amusing”.

As chief of the Imperial German general staff from 1891-1905, German Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen devised the strategic roadmap by which Germany prosecuted the first world war. The “Schlieffen Plan” could be likened to a bar fight, where a fighter (Germany) had to take out one guy fast (France), before turning and facing his larger and somewhat slower buddy (Imperial Russia).

Schlieffen_Plan_fr.svg

Of infinite importance to Schlieffen’s plan was the westward sweep through France, rolling that nation’s ground forces into a ball on a timetable before his armies could turn east to face the “Russian Steamroller”. “When you march into France”, Schlieffen had said, “let the last man on the right brush the Channel with his sleeve.”

Ypres SalientField Marshall Helmuth von Moltke once said “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy”.  So it was in the tiny Belgian city where German plans met with ruin, on the road to Dunkirk. Native Dutch speakers called the place Leper.  Today we know it as Ypres (Ee-pres), since battle maps of the time were drawn up in French. To the Tommys of the British Expeditionary Force, the place was “Wipers”.

What had hitherto been a war of movement ground to a halt in the apocalyptic fighting around Ypres, in October-November, 1914. The scale of the casualties are hard to get your head around.  Over four years, several hundred thousand sons of Germany, Great Britain and France were killed in the battles for the Ypres Salient – a battlefield only 24 kilometers, square.  100 military burial grounds or more, contain their mortal remains.

YpresThe second Battle for Ypres began with a new and terrifying weapon on April 22, 1915. German troops placed 5,730 gas cylinders weighing 90 pounds apiece, along a four-mile front. Allied troops must have looked on in wonder, as that vast yellow-green carpet crept toward their lines.

Chlorine gas forms hypochlorous acid when combined with water, destroying the moist tissues of the lungs and eyes. Heavier than air, the stuff slithered along the ground and poured into trenches, forcing troops out into heavy German fire. 6,000 casualties were sustained in the gas attack alone, opening a four mile gap in the allied line. Thousands retched and coughed out their last breath, as others tossed their equipment and ran in terror.

After the war, German losses were estimated at 34,933 between April 21 and May 30.  BEF casualties numbered 59,275. The French recorded about 18,000 on April 22 alone, and another 3,973 by April 29. All told, 2nd Ypres cost allied forces 87,223 killed, wounded or missing.

The third Battle of Ypres would begin in July of 1917, lasting almost until the end of the war. 3rd Ypres would result in 570,000 losses on all sides, but in early 1916, that was all part of some unknown and terrible future.

It’s hard to imagine anything remotely humorous coming out of the horrors of this place, but such became possible in the early months of 1916.

Optimism advert

First established in 1881, the “Sherwood Foresters” were line infantry Regiments (Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiments) of the British Army, at this time stationed at the front lines of the Ypres salient.  The unit came across a printing press.  Corporal George Turner, who’d been a printer in civil life, got the thing going. The Forresters began a trench magazine, a PDF of which may be downloaded HERE.  The first edition of the Wipers Times published on February 12, 1916.  The paper included poems and reflections, news, “adverts” and the blackest of humor.

Written for fellow soldiers, some of the in-jokes are so obscure that their meaning is lost to the modern reader. Others are clearly understandable, even 102 years later.

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Richly typeset advertisements for “Music Hall Extravaganzas” included “Tickling Fritz” by the P.B.I. (Poor Bloody Infantry) Film Co. of the United Kingdom and Canada, advising the enthusiast to “Book Early”. There were Real Estate ads for property in no-man’s land. “BUILD THAT HOUSE ON HILL 60. BRIGHT-BREEZY-&-INVIGORATING. COMMANDS AN EXCELLENT VIEW OF HISTORIC TOWN OF YPRES”. Another one read “FOR SALE, THE SALIENT ESTATE – COMPLETE IN EVERY DETAIL! UNDERGROUND RESIDENCES READY FOR HABITATION. Splendid Motoring Estate! Shooting Perfect !! Fishing Good!!!”

Old Masters

There were advertisements for barbed wire cutters with built-in umbrellas, for the most discerning of gentlemen.

There were news features, this one of a bungled trench raid: “”…They climbed into the trench and surprised the sentry, but unfortunately the revolver which was held to his head missed fire. Attempts were made to throttle him quietly, but he succeeded in raising the alarm, and had to be killed.” editor’s note, “This we consider real bad luck for the sentry after the previous heroic efforts to keep him alive””.

There were weather reports, laying odds on the forecast. “5 to 1 Mist, 11 to 2 East Wind or Frost, 8 to 1 Chlorine”. My favorite among the classifieds has got to be the “Flammenwerfer” (Flame Thrower). “Guaranteed absolutely harmless.”  “Instructive – Amusing”.

Miss Minnie WerferUnits of all sizes, from individual companies to army corps, lightened the load of the “War to end all Wars”, with some kind of unit journal.

Some officers were not amused by the underground paper, and thought its publication should be banned. Others believed that it kept some semblance of morale in the trenches. One pointed out that “humour is what distinguishes us from barbarism.”

The Wipers Times ran through the end of the war, with the exception of the “Operation Michael” period, the last gasp German Western Front offensive of 1918. The final edition, titled “The Better Times”, was published in December 1918, just short of two months after the armistice.   The banner headline on that final edition read “Xmas, Peace and Final Number.”

Better Times Headline

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

April 28, 1933 Sacred Cod

So important was the Cod to the regional economy, that a carved likeness of the fish hung in the Massachusetts State House, fifty years or more before the Revolution.

The American Revolution was barely 15 years in the rear-view mirror, when the new State House opened in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston.  The building has expanded a couple of times since then, and remains the home of Massachusetts’ state government, to this day.

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On January 11, 1798, a procession of legislators and other dignitaries worked its way from the old statehouse at the intersection of Washington and State Streets to the new one on Beacon Hill, a symbolic transfer of the seat of government.  The procession carried with it, a bundle.  Measuring 4’11” and wrapped in an American flag, it was a life-size wooden carving.  Of a fish.

For the former Massachusetts colony, the Codfish had once been a key to survival.  Now, this “Sacred Cod” was destined for a new home in the legislative chamber of the House of Representatives.

download (72)Mark Kurlansky, author of “Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World”, laments the 1990s collapse of the Cod fishery, saying the species finds itself “at the wrong end of a 1,000-year fishing spree.”

Records exist from as early as AD985, of Eirik the Red, Leif Eirikson’s father, preserving Codfish by hanging them in the cold winter air.  Medieval Spaniards of the Basque region improved on the process, by the use of salt.  By A.D. 1,000, Basque traders were supplying a vast international market, in Codfish.

By 1550, Cod accounted for half the fish consumed in all Europe.  When the Puritans set sail for the new world it was to Cape Cod, to pursue the wealth of the New England fishery.

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Without Codfish, Plymouth Rock would likely have remained just another boulder. William Bradford, first signer of the Mayflower Compact in 1620 and 5-term governor of the Plymouth Colony (he called it “Plimoth”), reported that, but for the Cod fishery, there was talk of going to Manhattan or even Guiana:  “[T]he major part inclined to go to Plymouth, chiefly for the hope of present profit to be made by the fish that was found in that country“.

There are tales of sailors scooping Codfish out of the water, in baskets.  So important was the Cod to the regional economy, that a carved likeness of the creature hung in the old State House, fifty years or more before the Revolution.

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Massachusetts’ old Statehouse

The old State House burned in 1747, leaving nothing but the brick exterior you see today, not far from Faneuil Hall.  It took a year to rebuild the place, including a brand new wooden Codfish.  This one lasted until the British occupation of Boston, disappearing sometime between April 1775 and March 1776.

The fish which accompanied that procession in 1798 was the third, and so far the last such carving to hang in the Massachusetts State House, where it’s remains to this day.  Sort of.

With the country plunged into the Great Depression, someone looked up in Massachusetts’ legislative chamber, and spied – to his dismay – nothing but bare wires.  The Commonwealth had suffered “The Great Cod-napping”, of 1933.

Newspapers went wild with speculation about what happened to The Sacred Cod.

Suspects were questioned and police chased down one lead after another, but they all turned out to be red herring (sorry, I couldn’t help myself).  State police dredged the Charles River, (Love that dirty water).  Lawmakers refused D’Bait (pardon), preferring instead to discuss what they would do with the Cod-napper(s), if and when the evildoers were apprehended.

Soon, an anonymous tip revealed the culprits to be college pranksters, three editors of the Harvard Lampoon newspaper pretending to be tourists.  It was a two-part plan, the trio entering the building with wire cutters and a flower box, as other Lampoon members created a diversion by kidnapping an editor from the arch-rival newspaper, the Harvard Crimson.  The caper worked, flawlessly.  Everyone was busy looking for the missing victim, as two snips from a wire cutter brought down the Sacred Cod.

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Two days later, it was April 28.  A tip led University Police to a car with no license plate, cruising up the West Roxbury Parkway. After a 20-minute low speed chase, (I wonder if it was a white Bronco), the sedan pulled over.  Two men Carp’d the Diem (or something like that), and handed over the Sacred Cod, before driving away.

The Sacred Cod  resumed its rightful place, and once again, there was happiness upon the Land.  The Cod was stolen one more time in 1968, this time by UMASS students protesting some thing or other, but the fish never made it out of the State House.

Holy-Mackerel
The “Holy Mackerel” of the Massachusetts State Senate

Years later, future Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill faced the Cod in the direction of the majority party.  It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Bay State politics, that the thing has faced Left, from that day to this.  For Massachusetts’ minuscule Republican delegation, hope springs eternal that the Sacred Cod will one day, face Right.

Not to be outdone, the State Senate has its own fish, hanging in the legislative chambers.  There in the chandelier, above the round table where sits the Massachusetts upper house, is the copper likeness of the “Holy Mackerel”.  No kidding.  I wouldn’t fool around about a thing like that.

Legend has it that, when you see those highway signs saying X miles to Boston, they’re really giving you the distance to the Holy Mackerel.

A tip of my hat to my friend and Representative to the Great & General Court David T. Vieira, without whom I’d have remained entirely ignorant of this fishy tale.

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Beacon Hill, seat of Massachusetts state government, where the author addresses an empty chamber.  Maybe The Sacred Cod™ was listening.
If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

April 27, 1865 Sultana

Sultana was the worst maritime disaster in United States history, though its memory was mostly swept away in the tide of events that April.  The United States Customs Service records an official count of 1,800 killed, though the true number will never be known.  Titanic went down in the North Atlantic 47 years later, taking 1,512 with her.

In April 1865, the Civil War was all but ended.  General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant on the 9th.  President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated five days later, and John Wilkes Booth run to ground and killed on the 26th.  Thousands of former POWs were being released from Confederate camps in Alabama and Georgia, and held in regional parole camps.

The sidewheel steamboat Sultana left New Orleans with about 100 passengers and a few head of livestock, pulling into Vicksburg Mississippi on the 21st to repair a damaged boiler and to pick up a promised load of passengers.

The mechanic wanted to cut a bulging seam out of the boiler and install a new plate, easily three day’s work.  Captain J. Cass Mason declined, for fear of losing his passengers.  He wanted the seam hammered back into place and covered with a patch, and he wanted it done in a day.

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The passengers Mason was so afraid of losing were former prisoners of the Confederacy, and Confederate parolees, returning to their homes in Kentucky and Tennessee.

The Federal government was paying $5 each to anyone bringing enlisted guys home, and $10 apiece for officers.  Lieutenant Colonel Reuben Hatch, chief quartermaster at Vicksburg and one of the sleazier characters in this story, had approached Captain Mason with a deal.  Hatch would guarantee a minimum of 1,400 passengers, and they’d both walk away with a pocketful of cash.

As it was, there were other riverboats in the vicinity.  Mason didn’t have time to worry about boiler repairs.

The decks creaked and sagged, as beams were installed to shore up the load.  Sultana backed away from the dock on April 24, with 2,427 passengers.  More than six times her legal limit of 376.

BoilerBlue
This animation gives a sense of the size, of Sultana’s boilers

Sultana spent two days traveling upstream, fighting one of the heaviest spring floods in the history of the Mississippi River.  She arrived at Memphis on the evening of the 26th, unloading 120 tons of sugar from her holds.  Already massively top heavy, the riverboat now lurched from side to side with every turn.

Sultana (1)
SS Sultana was equipped with four such boilers, mounted from side-to-side.  Massively top heavy, water would run from left to right as she lurched from side to side, water then flashing to steam and creating enormous surges in pressure

The crew must have exceeded allowable steam pressure, pushing all that load against the current.  Pressure varied wildly inside Sultana’s four giant boilers, as water sloshed from one to the next with every turn, boiling water flashing to superheated steam and back to water.

The temporary boiler patch exploded at 2:00am on April 27, detonating two more boilers a split second later.  The force of the explosion hurled hundreds into the icy black water.  The top decks soon gave way, as hundreds tumbled into the gaping maw of the fire boxes below.

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Within moments, the entire riverboat was ablaze.  Those who weren’t incinerated outright now had to take their chances in the swift moving waters of the river.  Already weakened by terms in captivity, they died by the hundreds of drowning or hypothermia.

The drifting and burnt out hulk of the Sultana sank to the bottom, seven hours later.  The steamers Silver Spray, Jenny Lind, and Pocohontas joined the rescue effort, along with the navy tinclad Essex and the sidewheel gunboat USS Tyler.  700 were plucked from the water and taken to Memphis hospitals, of whom 200 later died of burns or exposure.  Bodies would continue to wash ashore, for months.

Sultana was the worst maritime disaster in United States history, though its memory was mostly swept away in the tide of events that April.  The United States Customs Service records an official count of 1,800 killed, though the true number will never be known.  Titanic went down in the North Atlantic 47 years later, taking 1,512 with her.

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Despite the enormity of the disaster, no one was ever held accountable.  One Union officer, Captain Frederick Speed, was found guilty of grossly overcrowding the riverboat.  It was he who sent 2,100 prisoners from their parole camp into Vicksburg, but his conviction was later overturned.  It seems that higher ranking officials may have tried to make him into a scapegoat, since he never so much as laid eyes on Sultana herself.

Captain Williams, the officer who actually put all those people onboard, was a West Point graduate and regular army officer.  The army didn’t seem to want to go after one of its own.  Captain Mason and all of his officers were killed in the disaster.  Reuben Hatch, the guy who concocted the whole scheme in the first place, resigned shortly after the disaster, thereby putting himself outside the reach of a military tribunal.

Sultana Memorial at the Mount Olive Baptist Church Cemetery in Knoxville, Tennessee in 2010
Sultana Memorial at the Mount Olive Baptist Church Cemetery in Knoxville, Tennessee, 2010

The last survivor of the Sultana disaster, Private Charles M. Eldridge of the 3rd (Confederate) Tennessee Cavalry, died at his home at the age of 96 on September 8, 1941. Three months before the Imperial Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

April 26, 1777  The Female Paul Revere

The Dutchess County Militia had to be called up.  The Colonel himself had only a single night to prepare for battle, and this rider was exhausted.  The job would have to go to Colonel Ludington’s first-born.  His daughter, Sybil.

Listen my children and you shall hear,
Of the midnight ride of…Sybil Ludington.

Paul Revere’s famous “midnight ride” began on the night of April 18, 1775.  Revere was one of two riders, soon joined by a third, fanning out from Boston to warn of an oncoming column of “regulars”, come to destroy the stockpile of gunpowder, ammunition, and cannon in Concord.

Revere himself covered barely 12 miles before being captured, his horse confiscated to replace the tired mount of a British sergeant.  Revere would finish his “ride” on foot, arriving at sunrise on the 19th to witness the last moments of the battle on Lexington Green.

download (55)Two years later, Patriot forces maintained a similar supply depot, in the southwest Connecticut town of Danbury.

William Tryon was the Royal Governor of New York, a long-standing advocate for attacks on civilian targets.  In 1777, Tryon was also a Major-General of the provincial army.  On April 25th, Tryon set sail for the Connecticut coast of Long Island Sound with a force of 1,800, intending to destroy Danbury.

Patriot Colonel Joseph Cooke’s small Danbury garrison was caught and quickly overpowered on the 26th, trying to remove food supplies, uniforms, and equipment.  Facing little if any opposition, Tryon’s forces went on a bender, burning homes, farms and storehouses.  Thousands of barrels of pork, beef and flour were destroyed, along with 5,000 pairs of shoes, 2,000 bushels of grain, and 1,600 tents.

Colonel Henry Ludington was a farmer and father of 12, with a long military career.  A long-standing and loyal subject of the British crown, Ludington switched sides in 1773, joining the rebel cause and rising to command the 7th Regiment of the Dutchess County Militia, in New York’s Hudson Valley.

In April 1777, Ludington’s militia was disbanded for planting season, returned to homes across the countryside.  Soaked to the skin and exhausted, a rider arrived at the Ludington farm on the night of the 26th, on an equally soaked and exhausted horse.  With a driving rain cascading in sheets off an empty saddle, the rider explained the purpose of his visit.  15 miles away, British regulars and a loyalist force were burning Danbury to the ground.

The Dutchess County Militia had to be called up.  The Colonel himself had only a single night to prepare for battle, and this rider was done for.  The job would have to go to the Colonel’s first-born.  That meant Ludington’s daughter Sybil, and she was barely sixteen.

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From Poughkeepsie to what is now Putnam County and back, the “Female Paul Revere” rode across the lower Hudson River Valley, covering 40 miles in the pitch darkness of night, alerting her father’s militia to the danger and urging them to come out and fight.  She’d use a stick to knock on doors, even using it once to beat back a highway bandit.

By the time that Sybil returned the next morning, cold, rain-soaked, and exhausted, most of 400 militia members were prepared to march.

35 miles east of Danbury, General Benedict Arnold was gathering a force of 500 regular and irregular Connecticut militia, along with Generals David Wooster and Gold Selleck Silliman.

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Arnold’s forces arrived too late to save Danbury, but inflicted a nasty surprise on the British rearguard as the column approached nearby Ridgefield.  Never outnumbered by less than three-to-one, Connecticut militia was able to slow the British advance until Ludington’s New York Militia arrived on the following day.  The last phase of the action saw the same type of swarming harassment, as seen on the British retreat from Concord to Boston, earlier in the war.

Though the British operation was a tactical success, the mauling suffered at the hands of colonials ensured that this was the last hostile British landing on the Connecticut coast.

The British raid on Danbury destroyed at least 19 houses and 22 stores and barns.  Town officials submitted £16,000 in claims to Congress, for which town selectmen received £500 reimbursement.  Further claims were made to the General Assembly of Connecticut in 1787, for which Danbury was awarded land.  In Ohio.

The old Keeler Tavern in Ridgefield is now a museum.  The British cannonball fired into the side of the building, remains there to this day.

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At the time, Benedict Arnold planned to travel to Philadelphia, to protest the promotion of officers junior to himself, to Major General.  Arnold, who’d had two horses shot out from under him at Ridgefield, was promoted to Major General in recognition of his role in the battle.  Along with that promotion came a horse, “properly caparisoned as a token of … approbation of his gallant conduct … in the late enterprize to Danbury.”

The pride which would one day be Arnold’s undoing, was assuaged.  For a time.

Henry Ludington became Aide-de-Camp to General George Washington, and grandfather to Harrison Ludington, future mayor of Milwaukee and the 12th Governor of Wisconsin.

Gold Silliman was kidnapped with his son by a first marriage by Tory neighbors, and held for nearly seven months at a New York farmhouse.  Having no hostage of equal rank with whom to exchange for the General, Patriot forces went out and kidnapped one of their own, in the person of Chief Justice Judge Thomas Jones, of Long Island.

download (60)Mary Silliman was left to run the farm, and negotiate for the release of her husband.  The 1993 made-for-TV movie “Mary Silliman’s War” tells a story of non-combatants, pregnant mothers and farm wives, during the Revolution.

General David Wooster was mortally wounded at the Battle of Ridgefield, moments after shouting “Come on my boys! Never mind such random shots!”  Today, an archway marks the entrance to Wooster Square, in the East Rock Neighborhood of New Haven.

Sybil Ludington received the thanks of family and friends, even George Washington himself, and then stepped off the pages of history.

Paul Revere’s famous ride would likewise have faded into obscurity, but for the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  86 years later.

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If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

April 25, 1898 Newsies

As late as 1900, fully 18% of the American workforce was under the age of sixteen.

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US presidential election results from 1796 to 1820 gives a good idea of partisan press circulation, where Green shaded states usually voted for the Democratic-Republican Party, while brown shaded states supported the Federalist Party

During the early colonial period, American newspapers were “wretched little” sheets in the words of America’s “1st newsboy”, Benjamin Franklin.  Scarcely more than sidelines to keep presses occupied.

Newspapers were distributed by mail in the early years, thanks to generous subsidies from the Postal Act of 1792. In 1800, the United States could boast somewhere between 150 – 200 newspapers.  Thirty-five years later, some 1,200 were competing for readership.

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Lithograph from the “Great Moon Hoax” of 1835

Today we hear a lot about “fake news”, but that’s nothing new.  In 1835, the New York Sun published a six-part series, about civilization on the moon.   The “Great Moon Hoax”, ostensibly reprinted from the Edinburgh Courant, was falsely attributed to the work of Sir John Herschel, one of the best known astronomers of his time.

Whatever it took, to sell newspapers.

Two years earlier, Sun publisher Benjamin Day ran a Help-Wanted advertisement, looking for adults to help expand circulation. “To the unemployed — A number of steady men can find employment by vending this paper. A liberal discount is allowed to those who buy and sell again“. To Day’s surprise, his ad didn’t produce adult applicants as expected.  Instead, the notice attracted children.

Today, kids make up a minimal part of the American workforce, but that wasn’t always so. Child labor played an integral part in the agricultural and handicraft economy, working on family farms or hiring out to other farmers.  Boys customarily apprenticed to the trades, at 10 – 14. As late as 1900, fully 18% of the American workforce was under the age of sixteen.

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Brooklyn newsboy, ca. 1910 Photo by Lewis Hine (Library of Congress)

Benjamin Day’s first newspaper “hawker” was Bernard Flaherty, a ten-year-old Irish immigrant. The kid was good at it too, crying out lurid headlines, to passers-by: “Double Distilled Villainy!” “Cursed Effects of Drunkenness!” “Awful Occurrence!” “Infamous Affair!” “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!”

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Hordes of street urchins swarmed the tenements and alleyways of American cities. During the 1870s, homeless children were estimated at 20,000 – 30,000 in New York alone, as much as 12% of school-age children in the city.

For thousands, newspapers were all that stood in the way of an empty belly.

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Homeless children sleeping in Mulberry Street district of New York, circa 1890

Adults had no interest in the minuscule income, and left the newsboys (and girls) to their own devices.  “Newsies” bought papers at discounted prices and peddled them on the street.    Others worked saloons and houses of prostitution.  They weren’t allowed to return any left unsold, and worked well into the night to sell every paper.

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For that, newsies earned about 30¢ a day.  Enough for a bite to eat, to afford enough papers to do it again the following day, and maybe a 5¢ bed in the newsboy’s home.

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Competition was ferocious among hundreds of papers, and business practices were lamentable.  In 1886, the Brooklyn Times tried a new idea. The city was expanding rapidly, swallowing up previously independent townships along the Long Island shore. The Times charged Western District newsboys a penny a paper, while Eastern District kids paid 1 1/5¢.

The plan was expected to “push sales vigorously in new directions.” It took about a hot minute for newsies to get wise, and hundreds of them descended on the Times’ offices with sticks and rocks. On March 29, several police officers and a driver’s bullwhip were needed to get the wagons out of the South 8th Street distribution offices. One of the trucks was overturned, later that day.

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That time, the newsboy strike lasted a couple of days, enforced by roving gangs of street kids and “backed by a number of roughs”. In the end, the Times agreed to lower its price to a penny apiece, in all districts. Other such strikes would not be ended so quickly, or so easily.

In those days, the Caribbean island of Cuba was ruled from Spain. After decades spent in the struggle for independence, many saw parallels between the “Cuba Libre” movement, and America’s own Revolution of the previous century.  In 1897-’98, few wanted war with Spain over Cuban interests more than Assistant Naval Secretary Theodore Roosevelt, and New York publishers Joseph Pulitzer & William Randolph Hearst.

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This was the height of the Yellow Journalism period, and newspapers clamored for war. Hearst illustrator Frederic Remington was sent to Cuba, to document “atrocities”.  On finding none, Remington wired: “There will be no war. I wish to return”.  Hearst wired back: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.” President McKinley urged calm, but agreed to send the armored cruiser USS Maine, to protect US “interests”.

The explosion that sank the Maine on February 15 killing 268 Americans was almost certainly accidental, but that wouldn’t be known for decades. Events quickly spun out of control and, on April 21, 1898, the US blockaded the Caribbean island. Spain gave notice two days later, that it would declare war if US forces invaded its territory. Congress declared on April 25 that a state of war had existed between Spain and the United States, since the 21st.

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Several days later, newsboys were shouting the headline:  “How do you like the Journal’s war?”

The Spanish-American War was over in 3 months, 3 weeks and 2 days, but circulation was great while it lasted. Publishers cashed in, raising the cost of newsboy bundles from 50¢ to 60¢ – the increase temporarily offset by higher sales. Publishers reverted to 50¢ per 100 after the war, with the notable exceptions of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.

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Brooklyn newsboys, 1908

Newsies struck the two in 1899, refusing to sell their papers. 5,000 newsboys blocked the Brooklyn Bridge, bringing traffic to a standstill. Competing papers such as the New York Tribune couldn’t get enough of the likes of strike “President” Dave Simmons, the boy “prize-fighter”, Barney “Peanuts”, “Crutch” Morris, and others.  The charismatic, one-eyed strike leader “Kid Blink”, was a favorite: “Friens and feller workers. This is a time which tries de hearts of men. Dis is de time when we’se got to stick together like glue…. We know wot we wants and we’ll git it even if we is blind”.

Neither Hearst nor Pulitzer ever dropped their price, but they did agree to take back unsold papers.

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Some worked well after midnight, to sell every paper

Long before modern notions of child welfare, street kids had precious few to look out for them, beyond themselves.  “Dutch” Johnson, Brooklyn’s “Racetrack Newsie”, caught cold, in 1905.  The illness soon turned more serious, and he was found unconscious on a pile of catalogs.  Brought to Bellevue Hospital by the East River,  the 16-year-old was informed that it was pneumonia.  This was before the age of antibiotics.  There was no chance.

“It goes”, Dutch said, in a voice barely audible.  “Only I ain’t got no money and I’d like to be put away decent”.

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H/T http://newsieshistory.tumblr.com for this image

Bookmaker “Con” Shannon offered to take up a collection for the burial.  He could have easily produced hundreds from bookies and gamblers.   Dutch’s diminutive successor “Boston”, spoke up.  “Naw”, he said “we’re on de job and nobody else”.  So it was that “Gimpy”, “Dusty”, and the other urchins of Sheepshead Bay pitched in with their pennies, their nickels and their dimes.  $53.40 bought the plot in Linden Hill Cemetery, with its small stone marker.  Not a plain black wagon and a nameless grave in some Potter’s Field.

 

 

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April 23, 1982 Conch Republic

The United States still had a border in those days, which the Federal government attempted to enforce.

Except for the Naval Air Station at Boca Chica and Coast Guard installations in Key West, Marathon and Islamorada, most of the economic activity in the Florida Keys, comes from tourism. It’s no wonder that, when the federal government shuts down the only road into the Keys, the locals are going to get cranky.

In April 1982, the Mariel boatlift was a mere two years in the past, and very much in the public memory.

download (74)The United States still had a border in those days, which the Federal government attempted to enforce.

On April 18, Border Patrol set up a roadblock in front of Skeeter’s Last Chance Saloon in Florida City, shutting down US Route 1, the only road in and out of the Florida Keys.  Originally intended to intercept illegals entering the country, the roadblock soon morphed into a hunt for illegal drugs, as well.

Cars waited for hours, in lines stretching 19 miles. Predictably, the attitude of Federal officials was one of towering indifference. Not so local business owners. Robert Kerstein wrote in his Key West on the Edge — Inventing the Conch Republic, “No one in Key West doubted that drugs were trafficked widely in the Keys by road and by boat. But tourism’s boosters had little tolerance for interruptions to their business.”

Dennis Wardlow, then-Mayor of Key West, contacted the chief of police, the Monroe County sheriff, his State Representative and then-Governor Bob Graham, demanding the roadblock’s removal. With none of the above having any knowledge of the barrier and lacking the authority to pull it down, Wardlow contacted INS directly. When the Border Patrol told him it was “none of his business,” the Mayor’s response could best be summed up in the words of Bugs Bunny: “Of course you know, this means war!

Conch Republic PassportsSuffering a blizzard of hotel cancellations, this “attack on Key West’s sovereignty” could not stand. On April 22, Mayor Wardlow, local attorney & pilot David Horan and Old Town Trolley Tours operator Ed Swift flew to Miami seeking legal remedy. When District Court Judge C. Clyde Atkins failed to issue an injunction, the Key West delegation took to the courthouse steps.

“What are you going to do, Mr. Mayor”, asked the assembled media. Swift leaned over and whispered into the Mayor’s ear, “Tell them we are going to go home and secede!” “We are going to go home and secede!”, said Wardlow, and that’s what they did.

Conch Republic Secession

Over the next 24 hours, secessionist co-conspirators worked feverishly to form a new government, filling cabinet positions such as “Secretary of Underwater Affairs” and “Minister of Nutrition”.

logo-navy2On April 23, with federal agents on scene to monitor the proceedings, a crowd gathered before the old customs building. Mayor Wardlow and a gaggle of allies mounted the back of a flatbed truck, to read the proclamation of secession. “We serve notice on the government in Washington”, he started, “to remove the roadblock or get ready to put up a permanent border to a new foreign land. We as a people, may have suffered in the past, but we have no intention of suffering in the future at the hands of fools and bureaucrats“.

With that, Mayor Wardlow declared “war” on the United States.  The “Great Battle of the Conch Republic” broke out in the harbor, when the Schooner Western Union commanded by Captain John Kraus, attacked the Coast Guard Cutter Diligence with water balloons, Conch fritters and toilet paper.  Diligence fought back with water hoses, as the new “Prime Minister” broke a stale loaf of Cuban bread over the head of a man dressed in a Navy uniform.

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Naval History was forever changed on this day, as the “Great Battle of the Conch Republic” raged across the waters of Key West

Pandemonium broke out as others launched stale bread and conch fritters at federal agents, Navy sailors and Coast Guard personnel. One minute after declaring his “verbal shot” at the Federal government, Mayor Wardlow surrendered to a nearby Naval officer, demanding a billion dollars in “foreign aid” in compensation for “the long federal siege.”

Apparently, that’s what it takes to get the attention of a Federal government bureaucrat. The roadblock lifted.  The restaurants, stores and hotels of the Keys soon filled with tourists and, once again, there was happiness upon the land.  Key West never got its “foreign aid”, but “secesh” leaders never received so much as a letter, saying they couldn’t leave the Union, either.

ConchRepublicSpecialForcesSo it is that the micro-nation of Key West celebrates its independence, every April 23. The “Conch Republic’ issues its own passports, selling T-shirts and bumper stickers with the slogan “We seceded where others failed”.

And if the Federal government ever comes back to mess with the sovereign nation of Key West, it had better be prepared to deal with the Conch Republic’s very own “Special Forces”, the motto for which is “Sanctus Merda”.  “Holy Shit”.

Tip of the hat to

“Conch Republic Military Forces, The Official Site of the Conch Republic Military”

Linked Here

for the “Conch Battle Hymn of the Republic”.  Lyrics by First Sea Lord, Admiral Finbar Gittelman, October 14, 2012 © Finbar Gittelman

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the sunshine and the sea
Right here upon our islands, where we love to live so free 
But in April 1982, the peace was not to be 
And we went rolling on

CHORUS
Glory glory Conch Republic 
Glory glory Conch Republic 
Glory glory Conch Republic 
From Key to shining Key

They were setting up a check point, tween the mainland and the Keys 
They had put a US Border, where it shouldn’t ‘oughta’ be 
So that’s when we seceded, and declared our sovereignty 
And the fun had just begun

(CHORUS)

We went forth into the harbor and a cutter we did spy 
And we sailed up along side her and we took her by surprise 
We hoisted up our battle flag, so proudly and so high 
And we went sailing on

(CHORUS)

The water and Conch fritters and the Cuban bread did fly 
Our bombers, they were raining toilet paper from the sky 
Our cannons they did thunder to proclaim our victory 
And we fought bravely on

(CHORUS)

We have faced the silly forces of misguided zealotry 
We have stood up to their foolishness for all the world to see 
And we’ve showed the other nations what America can be From
Key to shining Key

(CHORUS)

 

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.