December 24, 1822 A Right Jolly old Elf

Santa Claus may be the most powerful cultural idea, ever conceived.  This year, Christmas sales are expected to exceed one Trillion dollars.  Not bad for a 2,000-year old saint, best remembered for gift giving with no expectation of anything in return.

The historical life of St. Nicholas is shrouded in legend.  Born in modern-day Turkey on March 15, AD270, Nicholas was the only child of rich parents who died in a plague, leaving the boy a wealthy orphan.

St. Nicholas going to school
1689 fresco depicts St. Nicholas, giving to a school

Nicholas was raised in the Christian faith and became an early bishop in the Greek church. One of many stories concerning the bishop’s generosity involves a destitute father, unable to raise a dowry sufficient to marry off his three daughters. On two consecutive nights, Nicholas crept up to the man’s window, and dropped a small sack of gold coins. On the third night, the man stayed up to learn the identity of his secret benefactor, only to be asked to keep the name, secret. 

St. Nicholas saving the Three Maidens
St. Nicholas saving the Three Maidens, Decani monastery, Kosovo

Saint Nicholas passed on December 6 in the year 343. He’s entombed in a marble cathedral dedicated to his name, in Myra.

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The “Sinterklass” of the Netherlands, rides a white horse

Nicholas is remembered as the patron saint of whole nations and cities such as Amsterdam and Moscow, revered among the early Christian saints and remembered for a legendary habit of secret gift-giving.

Some ideas take hold in the popular imagination, while others fade into obscurity.  The “Three Daughters” episode made it into nearly every artistic medium available at that time, from frescoes to carvings and windows, even theatrical performances.

The Patron Saint not only of sailors, but of ships and their cargoes, the seas were the internet of the day, and the story of St. Nick spread from the Balkans to Holland, from England to Crete.

Krampus-340x540The Feast of St. Nicholas took hold around the 6th of December.  Children and other marginal groups such as old women and slaves could receive gifts, but only by demanding them.  The secret giving of gifts appeared sometime around the year 1200.

On the continent, legends of St. Nicholas combined with Pagan traditions and developed in quirky directions, including an evil doppelgänger who accompanies St. Nick on his rounds.  As early as the 11th century, the Krampus may be expected to snatch bad little tykes away from parts of Germany, Austria and the Alpine villages of northern Italy, never to be seen again.

In eastern Europe, the witch Frau Perchta “The Disemboweller” was said to place pieces of silver in the shoes of children and servants who’d been good over the year, and replace the organs of the bad ones, with garbage. Yikes.

In French-speaking regions, Père Fouettard (Father Whipper) accompanies Père Noël on gift-giving rounds, dispensing beatings and/or lumps of coal to naughty boys & girls. In some German speaking regions, the malevolent Schmutzli accompanies Samichlaus, with a twig broom to spank wicked children.

Never mind Santa Claus. The Schmutzli is watching.

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Samichlaus and the Schmutzli

The “Little Ice Age” of the 13th century, led to a proliferation of chimneys.  Windows and doors were the things of thieves and vagabonds, while the chimney led directly to the warm heart of the home.  St. Nick made his first gift-giving appearance via the chimney in a three daughters fresco, painted sometime in 1392, in Serbia.

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The Ghost of Christmas present as illustrated by John Leech, in Charles Dickens’ classic, a Christmas Carol

St. Nicholas was beginning to be seen as part of the family outside of the Church, which is probably why he survived what came next.  Saints reigned in the Christian world until the 16th century, when the Protestant reformation rejected such “idolatry” as a corruption of Christianity.

Whatever you called him:  Sinterklaos, Saint-Nikloi or Zinniklos, St. Nick went away entirely in England and Scotland during the time of Henry VIII, giving way to the spirit of Christmas cheer in the person of one Father Christmas.  England would no longer keep the feast of the Saint on December 6.  The celebration moved to December 25, to coincide with Christmas.

Protestants adopted as gift bringer the Baby Jesus or Christkindl, later morphing into Kris Kringle.

Puritan arrivals to New England rejected Christmas and everything with it, as “un-Christian”.  In 1644, Massachusetts levied a fine of five shillings, on anyone observing the holiday.

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Santa Claus 1863, by Thomas Nast

Sinterklaas survived the iconoclasm of the Reformation in places like Holland, transferring to the 17th century settlement of New Amsterdam:  what we now know as the new world port city of New York.

Sinterklass blended with Father Christmas, to create a distinctly American Santeclaus, which began to take hold in the 19th century.

The Christmas “celebrations” of the period, looked more like Mardi Gras than what we know today.  Drunk and rowdy gangs wandered the streets of New York, Philadelphia and the cities of the northeast, something between a noisy mob and a marching band.  Men fired guns into the air and banged or blew on anything that would make noise.  Mobs would beat up the unfortunate, and break into the homes of the “upper classes”, demanding food and liquor.

New York philanthropist John Pintard, the man responsible for the holidays celebrating the fourth of July and George Washington’s birthday, popularized an image first set forth by Washington Irving, in his satirical story A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker, depicting St. Nicholas bringing gifts to good little boys and girls, and switches with which to tan the hides of bad kids.

220px-MerryOldSantaThe unknown genius who published and illustrated A Children’s Friend in 1821, first depicted “Santa Claus” not as a Catholic bishop, but as a non-sectarian adult in a fur lined robe, complete with a sleigh inexplicably powered by a single reindeer, coming in through the chimney not on December 6, but on Christmas eve.

An anonymous poem believed to have been written on December 24, 1822 and later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, began with the words: “T’was the night before Christmas, and all through the house“…

A Visit From St. Nicholas“, better known by its first line, gave us the first description of the modern Santa Claus and a tool for domesticating the occasion, agreeable to law enforcement for calming the rowdy streets, to manufacturers and retailers for selling goods, to the church to make way for a family friendly day of worship and to parents, to control unruly children.

Goody_Santa_Claus_1889
Goody Santa Claus 1889

The “Right Jolly old Elf” took his modern form thanks to the pen of illustrator and editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast, creator of the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant and scourge of the Tammany Hall political machine which had swindled New York city, out of millions.

The idea of a Mrs. Claus seems to come from a poem by Katharine Lee Bates of the Cape Cod Curmudgeon’s own town of Falmouth, Massachusetts.

Today, the author is best known for her 1895  poem “Pikes Peak”, later set to music and widely known as “America the Beautiful”.

Tonight, NASA may be expected to track Santa and his sleigh drawn by eight reindeer, though none are any longer, all that tiny.  Santa Claus will appear around the planet. Regional variations include Santa’s arriving on a surfboard in Hawaii.  In Australia, he’s pulled by six white kangaroos.  In Cajun country, Papa Noël arrives in a pirogue, drawn by eight alligators.

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Santa Claus may be the most powerful cultural idea, ever conceived.  This year, Christmas sales are expected to exceed one Trillion dollars.  Not bad for a 2,000-year old saint, best remembered for gift giving with no expectation of anything in return.

Fun fact:  Today, the port city of Bari on the Adriatic coast of Italy is remembered for the WW2-era mustard gas accident, which spawned the discovery of modern chemotherapy drugs. A thousand years earlier, city fathers feared growing Muslim influence over the tomb of Saint Nicholas, and went to retrieve his remains.  Find him, they did.  Saint Nicholas’ large bones were removed and brought back as holy relics to Bari, where they remain, to this day.  Smaller fragments were removed during the 1st Crusade and brought back to Venice, or enshrined in basilica from Moscow to Normandy.  According to one local antiquarian, the “Tomb of Saint Nicholas” in Ireland, is probably that of a local priest.

Feature image, top of page:  Hat tip GP Cox.  I don’t know where you got it, but I Love this image.  Merry Christmas and all the best for a healthy and prosperous New Year to you and yours, from Mr. & Mrs. Cape Cod Curmudgeon.

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.
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December 23, 1884 Lake Bacon

The meadows and the bayous of our southern lands shall swarm with herds of hippopotami

Only hours from now, families will gather from across the nation, for the Christmas table.  There will be moist and savory stuffing, and green bean casserole.  Creamy mashed potatoes and orange cranberry sauce.  And there, the centerpiece of the feast.  Slow-roasted and steaming in its tray, golden brown and delicious, the roast hippopotamus.

Wait…What?

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Water Hyacinth

On this day in 1884, the World Cotton Centennial and World’s Fair was beginning its second week, in New Orleans. Among the many wonders on display was the never-before seen, Eichornia crassipes, a gift of the Japanese delegation.  The Water Hyacinth.

Visitors marveled at this beautiful aquatic herb, its yellow spots accentuating the petals of beautiful delicate purple and blue flowers, floating across tranquil ponds on thick, dark green leaves.

The seeds of Eichornia crassipes are spread by wind, flood, birds and humans, and remain viable for 30 years.  Beautiful as it is to look at, the Water Hyacinth is an “alpha plant”, an aquatic equivalent to the Japanese invasive perennial Kudzu, the “vine that ate the south”.  Impenetrable floating mats choke out native habitats and species, while thick roots impede the passage of vessels, large and small.  The stuff is toxic if ingested by humans and most animals, and costs a fortune to remove.

This plant native from the Amazon basin quickly broke the bounds of the 1884 World’s Fair, spreading across the bayous and waterways of Louisiana, and beyond.

Eichhornia_crassipes_field_at_Langkawi

During the first decade of the 20th century, an exploding American population could barely keep up with its own need for food, especially, meat.  The problem reached crisis proportions in 1910, with over grazing and a severe cattle shortage.  Americans were seriously discussing the idea, of eating dogs.

Enter Louisiana member of the House of Representatives, New Iberia’s own Robert Foligny Broussard, with a solution to both problems.  “Lake Bacon”.

The attorney from Louisiana’s 3rd Congressional district proposed the “American Hippo” bill, H.R. 23621, in 1910, with enthusiastic support from Theodore Roosevelt and the New York Times.  One Agricultural official estimated that such a free-range hippo herd would produce up to a million tons of meat, per year.

Lippincott’s monthly magazine, waxed rhapsodic:  “This animal, homely as a steamroller, is the embodiment of salvation.  Peace, plenty and contentment lie before us, and a new life with new experiences, new opportunities, new vigour, new romance, folded in that golden future, when the meadows and the bayous of our southern lands shall swarm with herds of hippopotami”.

With a name deriving from the Greek term “River Horse”, the common hippopotamus is the third largest land animal living today.  Despite a physical resemblance to hogs and other even-toed ungulates, Hippopotamidae’s closest living relatives are cetaceans such as whales, dolphins and porpoises.

All well and good.  The problem is, these things are dangerous.

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The adult bull hippopotamus is extremely aggressive, unpredictable and highly territorial.  And heaven help anyone caught between a cow, and her young.  Hippos can gallop at short sprints of 19 mph, only a little slower than Jamaican Sprinter Usain Bolt, “the fastest man who ever lived”.

To search the “10 most dangerous animals in Africa” is to learn that hippos are #1, responsible for more human fatalities than any other large animal, in Africa.

p-hippo-1_1467398cBe that at it as it may, the animal is a voracious herbivore, spending daylight hours at the bottom of rivers & lakes, happily munching on vegetation.

What could be better than taking care of two problems at once.  Otherwise unproductive swamps and bayous from Florida to Louisiana would become home to great hordes of free-range hippos.  The meat crisis would be solved.  America would become a nation of hippo ranchers.

As Broussard’s bill wended its way through Congress, the measure picked up steam with the enthusiastic support of two men, mortal enemies who’d spent ten years in the African bush, trying to kill each other. No, really.

Frederick Russell Burnham had argued for the introduction of African wildlife into the American food stream, some four years earlier.  A freelance scout and American adventurer, Burnham was known for his service to the British South Africa company, and to the British army in colonial Africa. The “King of Scouts’, commanding officers described Burnham as “half jackrabbit and half wolf”.  A “man totally without fear.”  One writer described Burnham’s life as “an endless chain of impossible achievements”, another “a man whose senses and abilities approached that of a wild predator”.  He was the inspiration for the Indiana Jones character and for the Boy Scouts.  Frederick Burnham was the “most complete human being who ever lived “.

Frederick Russell Burnham (left), Fritz Joubert Duquesne (right)

Frederick “Fritz” Joubert Duquesne was a Boer of French Huguenot ancestry, descended from Dutch settlers to South Africa.  A smooth talking guerrilla fighter, the self-styled “Black Panther” once described himself as every bit the wild African animal, as any creature of the veld.  An incandescent tower of hate for all things British, Duquesne was a liar, a chameleon, a man of 1,000 aliases who once spent seven months feigning paralysis, so he could fool his jailers long enough to cut through his prison bars.

Duquesne was destined to be a German spy and saboteur, through two world wars.  Frederick Burnham described his mortal adversary, thus:  “He was one of the craftiest men I ever met. He had something of a genius of the Apache for avoiding a combat except in his own terms; yet he would be the last man I should choose to meet in a dark room for a finish fight armed only with knives“.

in-1910-President-Roosevelt-supported-a-bill-that-would-have-released-hippopotamuses-into-Louisiana-to-eat-an-invasive-plant-species-and-to-provide-delicious-hippo-bacon-to-hungry-AmericDuring the 2nd Boer war, the pair had sworn to kill each other.  In 1910, these two men became partners in a mission to bring hippos, to America’s dinner table.

Biologically, there is little reason to believe that Hippo ranching couldn’t have worked along the Gulf coast.  Colombian officials estimate that, within a few years, the hippo descendants of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s exotic animal menagerie will number 100 or more individuals.

Hippo Steak

Broussard’s measure went down to defeat by a single vote, but never entirely went away.  Always the political calculator, Representative and later-Senator Broussard died with the bill on his legislative agenda, waiting for the right moment to reintroduce the thing.

Over time, the solution to the meat question became a matter of doubling down on what we’re already doing, as factory farms and confinement operations took the place of free ranges, and massive use of antibiotics replaced the idea of balanced biological systems.

We may or may not have “traded up”.  Today, we contend with ever more antibiotic-resistant strains of “Superbug”. Louisiana spends $2 million per year on herbicidal control of the water hyacinth. The effluent of factory farms from Montana to Pennsylvania works its way into the nation’s rivers and streams, washing out to the Mississippi Delta to a biological dead zone, the size of New Jersey.

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Gulf of Mexico dead zone, image credit NOAA

That golden future of Lippincott’s hippo herds roam only in the meadows and bayous of the imagination.  Who knows, it may be for the best.  I don’t know if any of us could’ve seen each other across the table, anyway.  Not when the roast hippopotamus, got there.

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.

 

 

December 22, 1944 The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne

The forgotten angel of Bastogne was eighty-six when the knock came on the door of that Belgian nursing home.  It took months for the Scottish historian to coax the story out of her. 

The Battle of the Bulge is a familiar tale: The massive German offensive bursting out of the frozen Ardennes forest on December 16, 1944. The desperate drive to capture the Belgian port of Antwerp, vital to German re-supply efforts.

Battle of the BulgeThe terrain was considered unsuitable for such an attack. The tactical surprise was complete, British and American forces separated and driven back, their positions forming an inward “bulge” on wartime battle maps.

The story of the “Battered Bastards” is likewise, well known. 22,800 Americans, outnumbered five to one in some places and surrounded, in the do-or-die fight to hold the indispensable crossroads, of Bastogne. The German demand to surrender, of December 22. The response from American General Anthony McAuliffe, the one word response, “Nuts”, the American slang, confusing to the German delegation.

The siege of Bastogne would last another four days, the German encirclement at last broken by elements of George S. Patton’s 3rd Army. By the end of January, the last great effort of German arms was spent and driven back behind original lines.

BastogneHistorian Stephen Ambrose wrote “Band of Brothers” nearly fifty years later, a non-fiction account later broadcast as an HBO mini-series, of the same name. The story refers to a black nurse named Anna. There is a brief appearance and then she is gone. No one knew who Anna was, or even if she was real.

Sixty-one years after Bastogne, military historian Martin King was conducting research for a book, Voices of the Bulge.  The knock on the door came in October 2007, in a geriatric home outside of Brussels.

In the months following the Great War, Henri Chiwy (pronounced “SHE-wee”) was a veterinarian, working in the Belgian colony of the Congo Free State. The name of the Congolese woman who bore his child is unrecorded, the name of their baby girl, Augusta Marie.

NursesAugusta Chiwy came back to Belgium when she was nine, one of the luckier of thousands born to European fathers, and African mothers. Back to the doctor’s home in Bastogne, a small town of 9,000 where Augusta was loved and cared for by her father and his sister, whom the girl knew as “aunt Caroline”.

Augusta was educated and raised a Catholic. She always wanted to teach but, due to the rancid racial attitudes of that time and place, it would not do to have a black woman teaching white children. She became a nurse instead, on the advice of her father and his brother, a well-known Bastogne physician.

Nursing school was about 100 miles north. Augusta became a qualified nurse in 1943 and returned home the following year for Christmas. She arrived on December 16, the day Adolf Hitler launched his surprise offensive.

Bastogne was soon surrounded, part of one of the fiercest and bloodiest battles, of WW2. Poorly equipped American GIs were outnumbered five to one. These guys didn’t even have winter uniforms.

Bastogne

US Army Doctor Jack Prior was desperate, the abandoned building serving as military aid station, home to some 100 wounded GIs. Thirty of those were seriously wounded. With virtually no medical equipment or medicine and the only other medical officer an Ohio dentist, Dr. Prior badly needed nursing help.

Augusta Chiwy did not hesitate to volunteer, knowing full well that she would be executed, if caught.

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Scene from the HBO mini series, “A Band of Brothers”

Working conditions were grisly in the weeks that followed. With no surgical instruments and no anesthesia, amputations and other procedures were performed with an army knife, with cognac to dull the patient’s pain. On Christmas eve, a direct hit from a 500-pound bomb hit one hospital building, instantly killing dozens of wounded GIs and the only other nurse, Renée Lemaire.  She would be remembered as “The Angel of Bastogne.”

Bastogne buildingAugusta Chiwy was in a neighboring building at the time. The explosion blew the petite nurse through a wall but, unhurt, she picked herself up and went back to work.  There were grisly injuries and many died due to inadequate medical facilities, but many lived, their families reunited thanks to the tireless work of Dr. Jack Prior, and nurse Augusta Chiwy.

Given the month of hell the pair had been through, Augusta was heartbroken when Dr. Prior had to move out, in January.  The pair exchanged addresses and stayed in touch, writing letters and exchanging small gifts, of candy.  They last saw each other in 2004, when Dr. Prior returned from his home state of Vermont, for the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.

Prior, ChiwyAugusta Chiwy suffered symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition poorly understood at that time.  She would go long periods without speaking, becoming quiet and withdrawn even years later.  She married a Belgian soldier in 1959 and the couple had two children.  It would be twenty years, before  she resumed her nursing career.  She almost never spoke of her experience in Bastogne.

The forgotten angel of Bastogne was eighty-six when the knock came on the door of that Belgian nursing home.  It took months for the Scottish historian to coax the story out of her.

Thanks to King’s efforts, Augusta Chiwy would finally receive the recognition she had earned.

“On June 24, 2011, she was made a Knight in the Order of the Crown by King Chiwy and KingAlbert II of Belgium. Six months later she received the U.S. Army’s Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service. And on March 21, 2014, Augusta was recognized by her hometown as a Bastogne Citizen of Honor”.  http://www.augustachiwy.org

When asked about her heroism, she’d always say the same thing: “I only did what I had to do.”

Augusta Marie Chiwy died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 94, on August 23, 2015. How many lives would have been cut short, will never be known.  But for the selfless and untiring efforts, of the Forgotten Angel of Bastogne.

Hat tip to http://www.augustachiwy.org, for most of the images used in this essay

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.

December 21, 2012 The Apocalypse is Postponed

There have been no fewer than 207 End-of-the-World predictions over the last 2,000 years.

During the recent past, one of the sillier bits of pop culture nonsense served up to us, may be that time the world came to an end on December 21, 2012.

It was the Mayan Apocalypse. A day of giant solar flares, when the planets aligned to cause massive tidal catastrophe, and the Earth collided with the imaginary planet Nibiru.  Over in China, Lu Zhenghai even built himself an Ark. Sort of.

If I’d only been smart enough back then, to sell survival kits.

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Lu Zhenghai’s ark, 2012. H/T Huffpo

End-of-the-world scenarios are nothing new. In 1806, the “Prophet Hen of Leeds” was laying eggs, inscribed with the message “Christ is coming”. It was the end of times.  The Judgement Day cometh.

The story, as told in the book “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,” written by Scottish author Charles Mackay in 1841, tells the story of a “panic[ked] terror”, when a “great number of visitors” traveled from far and near, to peer at the chicken Nostradamus.

befunky_21639Turns out that Mary Bateman, the bird’s owner and a serial fraudster, was writing these messages with some kind of “corrosive ink”, maybe an acid, and reinserting them into the poor chicken. The “Yorkshire Witch” met her end on a gibbet, hanged for the poisoned pudding she gave that couple to relieve their chest pain.  But I digress.

If you were around in 1986, you may remember the great excitement, concerning  the return of Halley’s Comet. The celestial body only comes around once every 76 years and, the time before that, it was the end of the world. In 1910, the New York Times reported the discovery of the deadly poison cyanogen, in the comet’s tail. French astronomer Camille Flammarion predicted the gas would “would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.”

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French postcard, 1910

Hucksters sold comet pills. Doomsayers claimed that massive tides would cause the Pacific to empty, into the Atlantic. Finally, the end of days arrived. May 20, 1910.  And then it went.  There was no end of the world though, tragically, 16-year-old Amy Hopkins fell to her death from a rooftop, while awaiting the comet.

There have been no fewer than 207 End-of-the-World predictions over the last 2,000 years, if Wikipedia is any source. Polls conducted in 2012 across twenty countries revealed percentages from 6% in France to 22% in the United States and Turkey, believing the world would come to an end, in their lifetimes.

MayanCalendar-300x3005,000 years ago, the Mayan civilization of modern-day Mexico and Central America developed a sophisticated calendar, working with a base numerical system of 20.

It was three calendars, really. The “Long Count” was mainly used for historical purposes, able to specify any date within a 2,880,000 day cycle. The Haab was a civil calendar, consisting of 18 months of 20 days, and an “Uayeb” of five days. The Tzolkin was the “divine” calendar, used mainly for ceremonial and religious purposes. Consisting of 20 periods of 13 days, the Tzolkin goes through a complete cycle every 260 days. The significance of this cycle is unknown, though it may be connected with the 263-day orbit of Venus. There is no year in the Haab or Tzolkin calendars, though the two can be combined to specify a particular day within a 52-year cycle.

MayanCalendar

Get it? Neither do I.  Suffice it to say that the world of the Mayan Gods lasted 5,125 years and 133 days, a period of time known as 13 b’ak’tun.

The last Long Count began in August 3114 BC.  Counting forward, scholars decided on December 21, 2012, as the end of the cycle.

An estimated 2% of the American public believed this betokened the end of the world. Online searches went up for one-way flights to Turkey and the South of France, both of which were rumored to be safe havens from the apocalypse.

They should have asked a Mayan, who may have been amused by all those crazy Gringos.  The world wasn’t coming to an end.  The calendar just rolls over and begins again at “Zero”, like the old odometers that only went up to 100,000 miles.  What a party that could have been, though.  The “New Year” to end all New Years.  Only comes around once every 5,125 years, plus 133 days.  Happy Long Count.

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.

December 20, 1871 Honey, I Sold the Jail

It’s hard to know who first used the term, ‘insensate obstinacy’.  Churchill once described Stalin thus. Seems like the description could be applied to certain characters in this tale, as well.

The tracks reached Harvard Nebraska on December 20, 1871, the next town after Grafton and one of a series named in alphabetical order, connected by the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad.

There’s a lot of history in Harvard Nebraska. Nine months after the American entry into WW2, the town became home to a satellite Army Airfield, just outside of town. Twenty-six bombardment squadrons trained up at Harvard AAF, complete with five hangars performing air frame and engine repairs for B-17, B-24 and B-29 bombers. There were 6,000 officers and men there, at it’s peak.

In August 1943, the town was scene to a tragic midair collision between three B-17 bombers, killing fourteen and raining debris across Nebraska farms.

220px-Victory-gardenOn a lighter note, town government sold the jail once. To a sixteen-year-old kid. For a buck and a half and he sold it to a dummy, but now I’m getting ahead of the story.

“War gardens” or “food gardens for defense” were a staple part of the home front for combatants on both sides, of two world wars. Fruits and vegetables were planted on private properties and public parks as a way to boost civic morale, while supplementing wartime ration cards and taking pressure off public food supplies. George Washington Carver called them “Victory Gardens”.

In 1943, Robert Pinckney was the sixteen-year-old son of a local physician. The boy was looking for lots he could use for victory gardens, when he noticed that someone at Town Hall, had goofed. The two-cell jail was listed among properties for sale. They laughed at him at the office, when he showed them their mistake.   So he bought it.  For $1.50.

It’s hard to know who first used the term, ‘insensate obstinacy’.  Winston Churchill once described Stalin thus. Seems like the description could be applied to certain characters in this tale, as well.

Edgar_Bergen_Charlie_McCarthy_1947
Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, 1947

Even after Pinckney received the deed, town officials continued to house their criminals, in his jail house. The boy retained an attorney and attempted to sue for rent owed, only to be met with petty and vindictive measures by town employees who even now, refused to admit their mistake. He could get rent, but he had to pull up the sidewalk, first. Pinckney offered to sell the property back to the town but he couldn’t enter into a contract, because he was too young.  He couldn’t deed the place over, until he turned 21.

Town government tried to keep the embarrassment under wraps, until Time magazine got hold of it and the story became national news.

A wounded sailor recovering in Los Angeles, suggested the boy put the property up for a war bonds auction. That he did, and Charlie McCarthy, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s famous wooden dummy, bought the jail for $10,000, in war bonds.

After a while, the publicity died down.  Bergen’s dummy quietly deeded the jail back, to the town.  You can still find it there, at 151-185 West Oak Street, Harvard, Clay County, Nebraska.  It’s a small place.  Just take the main road, you can’t miss it.  A glittering monument to teenage enterprise.  And the insensate obstinacy, of government.

Feature image, top of page:  Harvard Nebraska jailhouse, once sold for $1.50, to a sixteen year old kid.

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.

December 19, 1843  A Christmas Carol

This quintessentially English tale is said to have drawn much from the work of Shakespeare, and others.  Perhaps the Old World drew inspiration from the New, as well. 

It’s hard not to love the traditions of the Christmas season.  Getting together with loved ones, good food, the exchange of gifts, and our favorite Christmas specials on TV.  I always liked a Charlie Brown’s Christmas, and of course there’s the Charles Dickens classic, “A Christmas Carol”, set against the vast brick factory buildings of Lowell, Massachusetts, along the Merrimack River.

Wait … What?

The 29-year-old Charles Dickens was already a well-known and popular author when he stepped onto the shores of Boston Harbor on January 22, 1842.  New Yorkers had literally lined the docks the year before, greeting ships bearing copies of the author’s latest, The Old Curiosity Shop.

“The Pickwick Papers,” “Oliver Twist,” “Nicholas Nickleby”; all were behind the young writer when he came to America, perhaps to write a travelogue, or maybe looking for material for a new novel.

LowellMillGirls
The “Mill Girls”, of Lowell

Dickens traveled to Watertown, to the Perkins School for the Blind, where Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan underwent their mutual education, a half-century later.  He visited a school for neglected boys, in Boylston.

Dickins must have thought the charitable institutions in his native England suffered by comparison, for he later wrote “I sincerely believe that the public institutions and charities of this capital of Massachusetts are as nearly perfect as the most considerate wisdom, benevolence, and humanity, can make them.”

In February, Dickens took a train north to the factory town of Lowell, visiting the textile mills and speaking with the “mill girls”, the women who worked there.  Once again, he seemed to believe that his native England came up short, in the comparison.  Dickens spoke of the new buildings and the well dressed, healthy young women who worked in them, perhaps comparing them with his own traumatic childhood experience of working in the mills back home, with his father confined in debtor’s prison.

v_Lowell_Offering_1The celebrity novelist enjoyed the finest sights of Boston and New York, and took in a steamship ride, down the Mississippi. He visited one of the great wonders of the natural world, the spectacular Niagara Falls.

And yet, the author described that visit to the industrial city of Lowell as “the happiest day” of his American vacation.

Dickens left the mill girls with a copy of “The Lowell Offering”, a literary magazine written by those same women, which he later described as “four hundred good solid pages, which I have read from beginning to end.”

More than a century and a half later, Natalie McKnight, professor of English and Dean at Boston University, noticed similarities between the two while preparing a talk for the Lowell Historical Society.

She read the same 400 pages as Dickens, and couldn’t help noticing parallels between the work of the mill girls, and “A Christmas Carol,” published about a year and a half after the author’s visit.  Chelsea Bray was a senior English major at the time.  Professor McKnight asked her to read those same pages.

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Marley’s Ghost, by John Leech, 1843

One story, “A Visit from Hope,” begins, “‘Past twelve!’ said a sweet, musical voice, as I was seated by the expiring embers of a wood fire. I turned hastily to see who had thus intruded on my presence, when, lo! I beheld an old man. His thin white locks were parted on his forehead, his form was bent, and as he extended his thin, bony hand toward me, it shook like an aspen leaf.”’

Makes it hard not to think of the ghost of Jacob Marley, Ebenezar Scrooge’s “dead as a doornail”, former partner.

Christmas,” another Lowell essay, describes Christmas as “the best day in the whole year” for what it brings out in people. The theme pops up again with Scrooge’s nephew, as in: “[T]he only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

Another piece, “The Blessings of Memory,” speaks of joyful recollections, too soon overridden by “unreal phantoms.” Scrooge’s redemption is all about Memory: Bray writes, “Scrooge’s conversion begins when the Ghost of Christmas Past makes him relive his memories and reconnect to past sorrows and joys.”

ChristmasCarol-OV_nov17-2

The research performed by the two was published in the form of a thesis, and later fleshed out to a full-length book:

“Dickens and Massachusetts
The Lasting Legacy of the Commonwealth Visits
(University of Massachusetts Press, 2015)

The book describes a number of similarities between the two works, making the argument that Dickens’ familiar story draws much from his experience in Lowell.  The authors specifically reject any accusation of plagiarism.  The Lowell essays possess neither the character development nor the linguistic richness of Dickens’ masterwork.

This quintessentially English tale is said to have drawn much from the work of Shakespeare, and others.  Perhaps the Old World drew inspiration from the New, as well.   Charles Dickens’ masterpiece, A Christmas Carol, was published for the first time 175 years ago today, December 19, 1843.

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December 18, 1943 Bat Bomb

What if thousands of these creatures were equipped with tiny little fire bombs, and dropped on Japanese cities. All that bamboo & paper construction, the place oughtta go up like a match head.

In a letter dated January 7, 1941, Marshall Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto directed Rear Admiral Onishi Takijiro under conditions of utmost secrecy, to study the feasibility of an attack on the American Naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor.  Half a world away in Irwin Pennsylvania, American dentist Dr. Lytle S. Adams was planning a driving vacation to the Carlsbad Caverns, in New Mexico.

Dr. Adams was gripped with amazement that day in December, on witnessing millions of bats, exiting the cave.  It was December 7 and word came over the radio, of a sneak attack in Hawaii. Millions of Americans must have been thinking about payback that day, Dr. Adams among them.  His thoughts returned to those bats. What if thousands of these creatures were equipped with tiny little fire bombs, and dropped on Japanese cities. All that bamboo & paper construction, the place oughtta go up like a match head.

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Lytle Adams was a personal friend of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and submitted the idea, the following month.  Zoology professor Donald Griffin was conducting studies at this time of echolocation among animals, and recommended the White House approve the idea. The Presidential memorandum read: “This man is not a nut. It sounds like a perfectly wild idea but is worth looking into.” The mammalian super weapon that never was, was born.

Bat_Bomb_Canister

Four biological factors lent promise to the plan. First, they’re the most plentiful mammal in North America.  A single cave can hold several million individuals. Second, load-carrying tests conducted in the dirigible hangar at Moffett Field in Sunnyvale, California, demonstrated that bats can carry more than their own weight. Third, they hibernate, making them easy to handle and, last, bats like secluded places such as buildings to hide during daylight.

Professor Louis Fieser, the inventor of military napalm, devised a tiny little canister to be carried by the bats. A suitable species was selected by March 1943, the Mexican Free-tailed Bat (Tadarida brasiliensis mexicanus).  “Bat bombs” were devised including 26 stacked trays, each containing compartments for 40 bats. Carriers would be dropped from 5,000-feet with parachutes deployed at 1,000-feet, allowing hibernating bats sufficient time to “snap out” of it.

Carlsbad_AAF_Fire_after_Bat_Bomb_Accident
Carlsbad AAF Fire, following Bat Bomb Accident

Early tests were promising. Too promising. On May 15, armed bats were accidentally released at the Carlsbad Army Airfield Auxiliary Air Base near Carlsbad, New Mexico, and incinerated the place when some of them came to roost under a fuel tank.

Despite the setback or possibly because of it, the program was handed off to the Navy that August, and code named Project X-Ray. The project was handed off once again that year, placed under control of the Marine Corps Air Station at El Centro, California, by December 18.

A “Japanese Village” was mocked up by the Chemical Warfare Service at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.  National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) observers were positive, one stating: “It was concluded that X-Ray is an effective weapon.” The Chief Chemist’s report was more enthusiastic: “Expressed in another way, the regular bombs would give probably 167 to 400 fires per bomb load where X-Ray would give 3,625 to 4,748 fires.”

Project X-Ray was scheduled for further tests in mid-1944 and not expected for combat readiness for another year, when the program was cancelled by Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King.  The project had already cost $2 million, equal to over $29 million today.  It was too much, for too little.

BatHouse

Die Fledermaus (“The Bat”) was a German operetta by composer Johann Strauss II, featuring a prolonged and drunken soliloquy by one Frosch, (the jailer), in act 2. Stanley Lovell was director of research and development for the OSS at the time (Office of Strategic Services), precursor to the CIA.  Ordered to evaluate the bat bomb by OSS Director “Wild Bill” Donovan, Lovell may have had the last word.  “Die Fledermaus Farce” he called it, noting that the things were dropping to the ground, like stones.

Fun Fact:
During WW2, the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) devised a “Rat Bomb”, for use against German targets. 100 rat carcasses were sewn up with plastic explosives, to be distributed near German boiler rooms and locomotives. The idea was that the carcass would be disposed of by burning, resulting in a boiler explosion. The explosive rats were never put to use as the Germans intercepted the first and only shipment. The project was deemed a success anyway, due to the enormous time and manpower resources expended by the Germans, looking for booby trapped rats.

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.