July 9, 1943 The Most Decorated K9, of WW2

“Chips, a German shepherd, collie, husky mix, was the most famous and decorated sentry dog in World War II, one of 10,425 dogs that saw service in the Quartermaster Corps’ new “K-9 Corps.” Prior to the K-9 Corps, dogs such as Admiral Wags on the carrier Lexington and World War I canine hero Sgt. Stubby were mascots and had no official function in America’s military.” H/T Defense Media Network

By the last year of the “Great War”, French, British and Belgian armed forces employed some 20,000 dogs on the battlefield, the Germans, 30,000. General Headquarters of the American Expeditionary Forces recommended the use of dogs as sentries, messengers and draft animals in the spring of 1918. However, with the exception of a few sled dogs in Alaska, the US was the only country to take part in World War I with virtually no service dogs in its military.

US Armed Forces had an extensive K-9 program during World War II, when private citizens were asked to donate their dogs to the war effort. One such dog was “Chips”, a German Shepherd/Collie/Husky mix who ended up being the most decorated K-9 of WWII.

Chips belonged to Edward Wren of Pleasantville, NY, who “enlisted” his dog in 1942. Chips was trained at the War Dog Training Center, Front Royal Virginia, and served in the 3rd Infantry Division with his handler, Private John Rowell. Chips and his handler took part in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany.  He served as a sentry dog for the Roosevelt-Churchill conference in 1943, and the team was part of the Sicily landings later that year.

The Allied invasion of Sicily was a large scale amphibious and airborne operation, beginning this day in 1943 and lasting through the 17th of August.  Six weeks of land combat followed in an operation code named “Operation Husky”.

During the landing phase, private Rowell and Chips were pinned down by an Italian machine. The dog broke free from his handler, running across the beach and jumping into the pillbox.  Chips attacked the four Italians manning the machine gun, single-handedly forcing their surrender to American troops. The dog sustained a scalp wound and powder burns in the process, demonstrating that they had tried to shoot him during the brawl.  In the end, the score was Chips 4, Italians Zero.   

Platoon commander Captain Edward Parr recommended Chips for the Distinguished Service Cross for “courageous action in single-handedly eliminating a dangerous machine gun nest and causing surrender of its crew.”

He helped to capture ten more later that same day.

Chips was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, and Purple Heart but his awards, were later revoked.  At that time the army didn’t permit commendations to be given to animals. His unit awarded him a Theater Ribbon with an Arrowhead for the assault landing anyway, along with eight Battle stars.  One for each of his campaigns.

Chips was discharged in December, 1945, and returned home to live out his days with the Wren family in Pleasantville. In 1990, Disney made a TV movie based on his life.  It’s called “Chips, the War Dog”.

July 8, 2002 Rocky

Rocky planned to become a Priest of the Roman Catholic faith, and return to the country to help the orphaned children of Vietnam. His was a bright and shining future. One never meant to be.

Humbert Roque Versace was born in Honolulu on July 2, 1937, the oldest of five sons born to Colonel Humbert Joseph Versace.  Writer Marie Teresa “Tere” Rios was his mother, author of the Fifteenth Pelican.  If you don’t recall the book, perhaps you remember the 1960s TV series, based on the story.  It was called The Flying Nun.

Like his father before him, Humbert, (“Rocky” to his friends), joined the armed services out of high school, graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point, in 1959.

Rocky earned his Ranger tab and parachutist badge the same year, later serving as tank commander with the 1st Cavalry in South Korea, then with the 3rd US Infantry – the “Old Guard”.

Rocky attended the Military Assistance Institute, the Intelligence course at Fort Holabird Maryland, and the USACS Vietnamese language Course at the Presidio of Monterey, beginning his first tour of duty in Vietnam on May 12, 1962.

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He did his tour, and voluntarily signed up for another six months.  By the end of October 1963, Rocky had fewer than two weeks to the end of his service.  He had served a year and one-half in the Republic of Vietnam.  Now he planned to go to seminary school.  He had already received his acceptance letter, from the Maryknoll order.

Rocky planned to become a Priest of the Roman Catholic faith, and return to the country to help the orphaned children of Vietnam.

His was a bright and shining future. One never meant to be.

Rocky was assisting a Civilian Irregular Defense (CIDG) force of South Vietnamese troops remove a Viet Cong (VC) command post in the Mekong Delta. It was unusual that anyone would volunteer for such a mission, particularly one with his “short-timer’s stick”. This was a daring mission in a very dangerous place.

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In happier times, Colonel Humbert Joseph Versace pins insignia on the uniform of his son, Captain Humbert Roque “Rocky” Versace

On October 29, an overwhelming force of Viet Cong ambushed and overran Rocky’s unit.  Under siege and suffering multiple bullet and shrapnel wounds, Versace put down suppressing fire, permitting his unit to withdraw from the kill zone.

Another force of some 200 South Vietnamese arrived, too late to alter the outcome.  Communist radio frequency jamming had knocked out both main and backup radio channels.

Their position overrun, Captain Versace, Lieutenant Nick Rowe and Sergeant Dan Pitzer were captured and taken to a North Vietnamese prison, deep in the jungle.

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For most of the following two years, a 2’x3’x6’ bamboo cage would be their home.  On nights when their netting was taken away, the mosquitoes were so thick on their shackled feet, it looked like they were wearing socks.

Years later, President George W. Bush would tell a story, about how Steve Versace described his brother.   “If he thought he was right”,  Steve said to audience laughter, “he was a pain in the neck.  If he knew he was right, he was absolutely atrocious.

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In 1964, Vietnamese interrogators were learning what Steve Versace could have told them, if only they’d asked.  His brother could not be broken.  Rocky attempted to escape four times, despite leg wounds which left him no option but to crawl on his belly.   Each such attempt earned him savage beatings, but that only made him try harder.

Fluent in French, Vietnamese and English, Rocky could quote chapter and verse from the Geneva Conventions and never quit doing so.  He would insult and ridicule his captors in three languages, even as they beat him to within an inch of his life.

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Incessant torture and repeated isolation in solitary confinement did nothing to shut him up.  Communist indoctrination sessions had to be brought to a halt in French and Vietnamese, because none of his interrogators could effectively argue with this guy.  They certainly didn’t want villagers to hear him blow up their Communist propaganda in their own language.

For five months in 1964, reports came back through intelligence circles, of one particular prisoner. Paraded in chains before local villagers, with hair turned snow white and face swollen and yellowed with jaundice. With hands tied behind his back and a rope around his neck, even then this man still spoke in three languages, of God, and Freedom, and American democracy.

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The affect was unacceptable to his Communist tormentors. To the people of these villages, this man made sense.

In the end, Versace was isolated from the rest of the prison population, as a dangerous influence.  He responded by singing at the top of his lungs, the lyrics of popular songs of the day replaced by messages of inspiration to his fellow POWs.  Rocky was last heard belting out “God Bless America”, at the top of his lungs.

Humbert Roque Versace was murdered by his North Vietnamese captors, his “execution” announced on North Vietnamese “Liberation Radio” on September 26, 1965.  He was twenty-eight years old.

Rocky’s remains were never recovered.  The headstone bearing his name in the Memorial section MG-108 at Arlington National Cemetery, stands over an empty grave.  The memory of his name is inscribed on the Courts of the Missing in the Honolulu Memorial at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, and on Panel 1E, line 33, of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

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This American hero of Italian and Puerto Rican heritage was nominated for the medal of honor in 1969, an effort culminating in a posthumous Silver Star.  In 2002, the Defense Authorization Act approved by the United States Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush, awarded Versace the Medal of Honor.

In a July 8, 2002 ceremony in the East Room of the White House, the President of the United States awarded the Medal of Honor to United States Army Captain Humbert Roque “Rocky” Versace.  Dr. Stephen Versace stood in to receive the award, on behalf of his brother.  Never before had the nation’s highest honor for military valor been bestowed on a POW, for courage in the face of captivity.

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This statue of Medal of Honor recipient and Ranger Hall of Fame inductee Captain “Rocky” Versace stands in a plaza bearing his name in Alexandria, Virginia. With him are the likenesses of two Vietnamese children, along with sixty-seven gold stars, each representing one of the 67 soldiers, sailors and airmen from Alexandria who were KIA or MIA, in the war in Vietnam.

July 7, 1944 Banzai

Crowded into the north end of the island, lieutenant General Yoshitsugu Saito assembled everything he had, over 4,000 hardened troops, into the largest banzai charge of World War 2.

The largest amphibious assault in history began on June 6, 1944, on the northern coast of France.  By end of day, some 156,000 Allied troops had successfully stormed the beaches of Normandy.  Within a week that number had risen to a third of a million troops, over 50,000 vehicles and more than 100,000 tons of equipment.

Half a world away the “D-Day of the Pacific” launched the day before and landed nearly two weeks later, to take the first of three islands in the Mariana group. Saipan.

The “leapfrog” strategy bringing US Marines onto the beaches of Saipan were nothing new. The earlier campaigns to recapture New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, clearing the way for the “island hopping” tactics of admiral Chester Nimitz, to move on the Japanese archipelago.  

The Solomon Islands of Tulagi, and Guadalcanal. The heavily fortified atolls of Tarawa and Makin, in the Gilbert islands. The Marshall islands group: Majuro, Kwajalein and Eniwetok. These and more were pried from the grasp of the Japanese occupier, retaken only by an effusion of blood and treasure unheard of, in previous conflicts.

Saipan was different. Captured in 1914, the League of Nations awarded Saipan to the Empire of Japan five years later, part of the South Seas Mandate of 1919. Saipan was Japanese territory, the first not retaken since the Japanese offensives of 1941 -’42. Not only that. Allied control of Saipan put the Japanese archipelago well within range of B29 long range bombers. Control of the Marianas and Saipan in particular spelled the beginning of the end of the war in the Pacific, and both sides knew it.

Prime Minister Hideki Tōjō publicly swore the place would never be taken. This was to be the most pivotal battle, of the war in the Pacific.

We’ve all seen that hideous footage from the closing days. The cataracts of human beings hurling themselves from the cliffs of Saipan to certain and violent death, on the rocks below. Destroying themselves to avoid who-knows-what kind of atrocities the propaganda ministers of their own government, had taught them to expect at the hands of the Americans.

And those were the civilians. The ferocity of Japanese military resistance can scarcely be imagined, by the modern mind. US Marines took 2,000 casualties on the first day alone, June 16, on the beaches of Saipan.

US Army joined in the following day and, for almost four weeks, battled dug-in and fanatical Japanese soldiers for control of Saipan. Fighting was especially intense around Mount Tapotchau, the highest peak on Saipan. Names such as “Death Valley” and “Purple Heart Ridge” etched themselves in blood, onto the histories of the 2nd and 4th divisions of the United States Marine Corps and the US Army’s 27th Infantry Division.

By July 6 what remained of the defenders had their backs to the sea. Crowded into the north end of the island, lieutenant General Yoshitsugu Saito assembled everything he had, over 4,000 hardened troops, into the largest banzai charge of World War 2.

Banzai as the allies called it after the battle cry “Tennōheika Banzai” (“Long live His Majesty the Emperor”) was a massed assault, one method of gyokusei (shattered jewel) whose purpose is honorable suicide, not unlike the hideous ritual of self-disembowelment known as seppuku.

Imagine if you will, an irresistible tide of shrieking warriors, thousands of them pouring down on you bent on destroying you and everyone around you, each seeking that honorable suicide only to be had, from death in battle.

The evening of July 6 was spent immersed in beer and sake At 4:45am local time July 7, the largest banzai charge of World War 2 came screaming out of the dawn to envelop US forces. First came the officers, some 200 of them, waving their swords and screaming, at the top of their lungs. Then came the soldiers. Thousands of them, howling in the morning’s first light. Major Edward McCarthy said it was like stampeding cattle, only these, kept coming.

The tide was irresistible at first, sweeping all before it. The American perimeter was shattered leaving nothing but isolated pockets, fighting for their lives. Fighting was savage and hand to hand with everything from point-blank howitzers and anti-tank weapons to rifle butts, fists, and rocks.

The human tide advanced some 1,000 yards into the American interior before it was slowed, and then stopped. By six that evening, American armed forces had regained original positions in what was now a charnel house, of gore.

406 Americans were killed that July 7 and an another 512, maimed. 4,311 Japanese troops, lay dead. Three stories come down to us, from that day. Three stories among thousands who have earned the right, to be remembered.

Lt. Col. William O’Brien fired two pistols into the faces of his attackers until he was out, of bullets. Receiving a severe shoulder wound in the process O’Brien leaped onto a jeep and blazed away with its .50 caliber mounted machine gun, all while shouting encouragement to his retreating comrades.

At last even that was out of ammunition. Lt. Col O’Brien was overwhelmed by his attackers his body riddled with bullets, and bayonet wounds. On retaking the position that evening American observers credited 30 dead Japanese, to O’Brien’s .50-cal.

Private Tom Baker exhausted his rifle’s ammunition before turning it, as a club. His rifle butt shattered Baker began to pull back, before he was hit. A fellow soldier began to carry him when he himself, was shot down. Baker refused further aid asking instead to be propped up against a tree facing the enemy with a cigarette, and a pistol.

He was found that afternoon, dead, the eight bullets from that pistol, spent. He was still sitting up against that tree. At his feet, were eight dead Japanese.

Captain Benjamin Salomon was a rear-echelon guy, a dentist assigned to a medical unit. Captain Salomon was treating the wounded in an aid station, when the first attacker, crawled under the tent wall. Salomon hit the man with a medical tray before killing him with a wounded soldier’s carbine.

Ordering the aid station to be evacuated of all wounded, Dr. Salomon covered their retreat with a .30-caliber water-cooled machine gun. He too was found later his body riddled with bullets, and bayonet wounds.

Seven men were awarded Medals of Honor for their actions on Saipan, all of them, posthumous. Among those were Lieutenant Colonel O’Brien, and Private Baker. Dr. Salomon did not receive the medal of honor as his final actions, involved a machine gun. The Geneva Conventions prevent medical personnel from defending themselves with anything more, than a pistol.

July 6, 1916 Jersey Shore

Today, some sharks are known to be capable of living for a time, in fresh water. Bull sharks have been known to travel as much as sixty miles up the Mississippi River. Researchers report that the Neuse River in North Carolina has been home to bull sharks, possibly arrived in pursuit of young dolphins. That information was unavailable in 1916.

As Spring gives way to Summer, kids of all ages exchange school bags for beach bags. Sports practices and homework are over, for now. We grown-ups can enjoy the last hours of the weekday, under the warmth of the sun.

Gone are the days when the warmth of summer brought with it, the horrors of polio.  We have no idea how fortunate we are.

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In pre-1955 America and around much of the world, Summer was a time of dread. TIME Magazine offered what solace it could, in 1946: “for many a parent who had lived through the nightmare fear of polio, there was some statistical encouragement: in 1916, 25% of polio’s victims died. This year, thanks to early recognition of the disease and improved treatment (iron lungs, physical therapy, etc.) the death rate is down to 5%.”

Polio is as old as antiquity but major outbreaks are all but unknown, until the 20th century. The 1916 outbreak was particularly severe. Nationally, some 6,000 died of the disease that summer. New York City alone suffered 9,000 cases of polio, forcing a city-wide quarantine.

“Polio was a plague. One day you had a headache and an hour later you were paralyzed. How far the virus crept up your spine determined whether you could walk afterward or even breathe. Parents waited fearfully every summer to see if it would strike. One case turned up and then another. The count began to climb. The city closed the swimming pools and we all stayed home, cooped indoors, shunning other children. Summer seemed like winter then.”

Richard Rhodes, A Hole in the World

To make matters worse, the epidemic took place during one of the hottest Summers in memory, the twin threats of heat and disease driving millions to seek relief at nearby lakes, streams and beaches.

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On July 1, 1916, twenty-five-year-old Charles Epting Vansant of Philadelphia was vacationing with family, at the Engleside Hotel on the Jersey shore. Just before dinner, Vansant took a swim with a Chesapeake Bay Retriever, who was playing on the beach. Vansant began to shout and bathers thought he was calling to the dog, but shouts soon turned to screams. As lifeguard Alexander Ott and bystander Sheridan Taylor pulled the man to shore, they could see the shark, following.

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Charles Vansant’s left thigh was stripped to the bone. He was brought to the Engleside hotel where he bled to death on the front desk.

Despite the incident, beaches remained open all along the Jersey Shore. Sea captains entering the ports of Newark and New York reported numbers of large sharks swarming off the Jersey shore but such reports received little attention.

The next major shark attack occurred five days later, on July 6. Forty-five miles north of Engleside, Essex & Sussex Hotel bell captain Charles Bruder was swimming near the resort town of Spring Lake. Hearing screams, one woman notified lifeguards that a red canoe had capsized, and lay just below the surface.  Lifeguards Chris Anderson and George White rowed out to the spot to discover Bruder, legless, with a shark bite to his abdomen. The twenty-seven year old Swiss army veteran bled to death before ever regaining the shore.

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Authorities and the press downplayed the first incident. The New York Times reported that Vansant “was badly bitten in the surf … by a fish, presumably a shark.” Pennsylvania State Fish Commissioner and former director of the Philadelphia Aquarium James M. Meehan opined that “Vansant was in the surf playing with a dog and it may be that a small shark had drifted in at high water, and was marooned by the tide. Being unable to move quickly and without food, he had come in to bite the dog and snapped at the man in passing“.

Response to the second incident was altogether different.  Newspapers from the Boston Herald to the San Francisco Chronicle ran the story front page, above the fold. The New York Times went all-in: “Shark Kills Bather Off Jersey Beach“.

A trio of scientists from the American Museum of Natural History held a press conference on July 8, declaring a third such incident unlikely. Be that as it may, John Treadwell Nichols, the only ichthyologist among the three, warned swimmers to stay close to shore, and take advantage of netted bathing areas.

Rumors went into high gear, as an armed motorboat claimed to have chased a shark off Spring Creek Beach.  Asbury Park Beach was closed after lifeguard Benjamin Everingham claimed to have beaten a 12-footer back, with an oar.

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New Jersey resort owners suffered a blizzard of cancellations and a loss of revenue estimated at $5.6 million in 2017 dollars.  In some areas, bathing declined by as much as 75%.

Scores of people died in the oppressive heat.  Newspapers reported twenty-six fatalities, in Chicago alone.  Air conditioning, invented in 1902, would not be widely available until the 1920s.  Rural areas had yet to be electrified.

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Today, some sharks are known to be capable of living for a time, in fresh water. Bull sharks have been known to travel as much as sixty miles up the Mississippi River. Researchers report that the Neuse River in North Carolina has been home to bull sharks, possibly arrived in pursuit of young dolphins.

That information wasn’t available in 1916.

As the heat wave dragged on, lakes and rivers crowded with bathers from Gary, Indiana to Manchester, New Hampshire.  In New Jersey, ocean beaches remained closed with the exception of the 4th Ave. Beach at Asbury Park, enclosed with a steel-wire-mesh fence and patrolled by armed motorboats.

Eleven miles from the ocean, Matawan New Jersey had little to fear, from sharks. Locals sought relief from the heat in Matawan Creek, a brackish water estuary in the Marlboro Township of Monmouth County.  With fresh waters flowing from Baker’s Brook down the salinity gradient to the full-salt waters of Keyport Harbor, Matawan Creek seemed more at risk for snapping turtles and snakes, than sharks.

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“Photo showing the Matawan Creek near its mouth in Keyport and Aberdeen Township, New Jersey. Photo taken from the Front Street / Amoby Road (County Route 6) bridge looking north”. H/T Wikipedia

On July 12, several boys including eleven-year-old epileptic Lester Stilwell were swimming near Wykoff Dock when the boys spotted an “old black weather-beaten board or a weathered log.” The boys scattered when that old log turned out to have a dorsal fin, but Lester Stilwell wasn’t fast enough.

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Many dismissed the rantings of five naked, hysterical boys, believing that no shark could be this far inland.  Twenty-four year old tailor Stanley Fisher came running, knowing that the boy suffered from epilepsy.  Arthur Smith and George Burlew joined in the effort, by now clearly a recovery and no longer a rescue. The trio got in a boat and probed with an oar and some poles, but…nothing. They were about to give up the search when Fisher dove in the water.  He actually found the boy’s body, and began to swim to shore.

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Matawan Creek

Townspeople lining the creek looked on in horror, as Fisher now came under attack.

Stanley Fisher made it to shore though his right thigh was severely injured, an eighteen-inch chunk of his thigh gone, and an artery severed. The man would bleed to death at Monmouth Hospital, before the day was over.

The Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916 claimed a fifth and final victim thirty minutes later, when 12-year old Joseph Dunn of New York city was bitten a half-mile from the Stilwell and Fisher attacks. A savage tug-of war ensued between Dunn’s brother Michael and sixteen-year-old Jeremiah Hourihan, with local attorney Jacob Lefferts jumping into the water, to help. The boy survived but the damage to his left leg, was severe.  He wouldn’t be discharged from the hospital, until September 15.

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Based on the style of the attacks and glimpses of the shark(s) themselves, the attacks may have been those of Bull sharks, or juvenile Great Whites.  Massive shark hunts were carried out all over the east coast, resulting in the death of hundreds of animals.  Whether all five attacks were carried out by a single animal or many, remains unclear.

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At the time, the story resulted in international hysteria. Now, the tale is all but unknown, but for the people of Matawan. Stanley’s grave sits on a promontory at the Rose Hill Cemetery, overlooking Lester’s grave, below. People still stop from time to time, leaving flowers, toys and other objects. Perhaps they’re paying tribute. A small token of respect. Homage to the courage of those who would jump into the water, in the face of our most primordial fear.

July 5, 1915 A Man of Science

Fancy the irony that, today as I write this, a 7-foot “non-scalable fence” surrounds the Capitol building, in Washington DC. In those days, you were apparently free to stroll about, with a bomb in your hands. At least while Congress was in recess.

The train left Boston station in April 1906, headed for Chicago. On board were the infant, the toddler, the nanny and the children’s father, Professor Erich Muenter, a German language instructor from Harvard University.  The two little girls’ mother was onboard as well.  Leone (Krembs) Muenter was in her casket taking a one-way trip to her own funeral, and burial in her home town.  She had passed from some sort of stomach ailment, ten days after giving birth.

The story may have ended there, but for Dr. Herbert McIntyre.  The circumstances of Leone’s death didn’t add up. Dr. McIntyre ordered an autopsy.  On April 27, Cambridge police issued a warrant for the arrest of Professor Erich Muenter for the murder of his wife, by arsenic poisoning.

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Apparently, this “man of science” wanted to test his theory that you could literally see the soul passing, at the moment of death.  Now, Erich Muenter vanished.

Eight years later, the European continent exploded in the ‘War to End Wars’.

US policy at this time allowed arms sales to any and all belligerents in the European war.  With British dominance of North Atlantic shipping routes, for all intents and purposes this meant France and Great Britain.

German language professor Frank Holt was teaching at Cornell University in 1915.  A naturalized citizen and committed German nationalist, Holt had ties with the secret German spy intelligence unit Abteilung IIIb, which was conducting a campaign of sabotage against US ships carrying munitions ‘over there’.

Frank Holt might have described himself as a ‘peace activist’, obsessed with the idea that arms themselves were extending the war.  If arms exports were brought to a halt he believed, the war would come to an end.

Holt gave up arguing the point on July 2 and took a train to Washington DC.  In his hands he carried a bomb, three sticks of dynamite attached to a timing mechanism, ingeniously designed to go off when the acid ate through the cork stopper. 

Fancy the irony that, today as I write this, a 7-foot “non-scalable fence” surrounds the Capitol building, in Washington DC. In those days, you were apparently free to stroll about, with a bomb in your hands. At least while Congress was in recess.

Finding the Senate chamber locked, Holt placed his package under a telephone switchboard in the Senate reception room, with the timer set to go off around midnight.

The explosion when it came, was enormous. The room was torn to pieces while, across the building, a night watchman was blown out of his chair.  Writing to the Washington Star newspaper under the pseudonym R. Pearce, Holt explained his intentions to “make enough noise to be heard above the voices that clamor for war. This explosion is an exclamation point in my appeal for peace.”

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Aftermath of the Senate bombing, July 2, 1915

The following day, a tiny little box on the front page of the New York Times attributed the explosion to ‘gasses’.  The paper was hitting news stands as Frank Holt headed for Long Island, to the Glen Cove estate of “the Great Pierpont”, J. P. Morgan.  Armed with two revolvers, a suitcase full of dynamite and a few anti-war newspaper clippings, Holt bulled his way through the butler who opened the door, and into the Morgan residence.

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John Pierpont Morgan

Pandemonium broke out in the home, as Holt turned his weapons on the four Morgan children.  Mrs. Morgan tried to block the path to her husband but the millionaire financier lunged, tackling the much smaller man to the ground.  Holt fired twice into Morgan’s thigh and groin, as the pair went down together.  Pierpont twisted the gun from his grasp as Mrs. Morgan and a gaggle of household servants struggled for the other.  All the while, the butler pounded the would-be assassin’s head with a lump of coal as Holt shouted “Kill me! Kill me now! I don’t want to live any more. I have been in a perfect hell for the last six months on account of the European war!

A copy of the R. Pearce letter quickly tied Holt to the Capitol bombing, as former colleagues identified the long-since vanished, alleged killer of Leone Muenter.  Frank Holt and Erich Muenter were the same man.

A colleague once described Muenter as “a brilliant man, a tireless worker, and a profound student.  Night after night he would sit reading, studying and writing while his wife lay asleep in a room nearby.” The Harvard Crimson newspaper described him as “harmless on the surface…affect[ing] a scholarly stoop and a Van Dyke, and wore dingy, patched suits”.  Fluent in seven languages he was the pale, bearded model of the junior faculty intellectual, complete with elbow patches.

For all his vaunted brilliance, Erich Muenter was nuttier than a squirrel turd.  His intention as explained to police, was to take Morgan’s wife and children hostage, until the financier cut off loans to Europe.  He told police of his intention to assassinate J.P. Morgan, as well.  How the two objectives squared with one another, remains to be explained.

Erich Muenter

That Sunday morning, July 4, the J.P. Morgan shooting seems to have been front page on every newspaper in the world.  On July 5, Erich Muenter took the brass ferrule from a pencil eraser, and slit his wrist.  That suicide attempt was unsuccessful.  The following day he scaled the bars of his prison cell and jumped, leaving his brains on the concrete floor, twenty feet below.

The day after his death, Police tracked down a trunk Muenter left in a New York city storage facility.  In it were 134 sticks of dynamite, blasting caps, fuse coils, batteries, nitric acid, windproof matches, mercury fulminate and smokeless explosive powder. Three tin can bombs had been recently completed, and were ready to go.  Inspector of Combustibles Owen Egan declared the find to be “the greatest equipment for bomb making ever brought to New York”.

That same day, the 2nd Mrs. Muenter received a letter from her dead husband.  It said that an arms shipment headed for England would go to the bottom, that very day.    Warned by wireless, the crew of SS Minnehaha frantically searched for the bomb, without success.  Muenter’s bomb went off and touched off a fire, but it was far away from Minnehaha’s cargo of high explosives, and did little damage to the ship itself.

SS Minnehaha

The vessel sustained little damage at the time but, in the end, the ghost of Erich Muenter had his way. The Harland & Wolff liner SS Minnehaha was torpedoed and sunk off the Irish coast with the loss of 43, on September 7, 1917. There was one survivor.

July 4, 1826 Friendship Restored

For two years Dr. Benjamin Rush labored to restore the broken friendship, of two founding fathers.  In 1811, he succeeded.

On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee delivered the all-important resolution of the founding era, before the assembled delegates of the 2nd Continental Congress:  “Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States...”

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Congress appointed three overlapping committees to draft a formal declaration of independence, a model treaty for the conduct of international relations and a document by which this confederation of states, was to be governed. Already appointed to the Committee of Confederation, Lee was urged to join the Declaration committee, as well. Believing that two such committees were too much and burdened with the care of a critically ill wife, he demurred.

So it is a committee of five was appointed to write the Declaration of Independence, including Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Robert R. Livingston of New York, Massachusetts attorney John Adams and a young Virginia delegate named Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson had no interest in writing the Declaration of Independence and suggested Adams pen the first draft. Adams declined, and described the following conversation, in a letter to Massachusetts politician Timothy Pickering:

“Jefferson proposed to me to make the draft. I said, ‘I will not,’ ‘You should do it.’ ‘Oh! no.’ ‘Why will you not? You ought to do it.’ ‘I will not.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Reasons enough.’ ‘What can be your reasons?’ ‘Reason first, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can.’ ‘Well,’ said Jefferson, ‘if you are decided, I will do as well as I can.’ ‘Very well. When you have drawn it up, we will have a meeting.”

Fellow committee members agreed. Thomas Jefferson spent the following seventeen days, writing the first draft.  He and Adams had only just met during the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.  The two would develop a close personal friendship which would last for the rest of their lives.

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To be more precise, the friendship between the two men would last, for much of their lives. That came to an ugly end during the Presidential election of 1800, in which mudslinging and personal attacks from both sides rose to levels never before witnessed in a national election.

Jefferson defeated one-term incumbent Adams and went on to serve two terms as President of the United States.  Upon Jefferson’s retirement in 1809, Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the Declaration’s signers, took it upon himself to patch up the broken friendship between the two founding fathers.

For two years Dr. Rush worked on this personal diplomatic mission.  In 1811, he succeeded.

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Jefferson Seal

There followed a series of letters between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, which together constitute one of the most comprehensive historical and philosophical assessments ever written about the American founding.

The correspondence between the pair touched on a variety of topics, from the birth of a self-governing Constitutional Republic, to then-current political issues to matters of philosophy and religion and personal issues related to the advancement, of years.

Both men understood. They were writing not only to one another, but to generations yet unborn.  Each went to great lengths to explain the philosophical underpinnings of his views. Adams the firm believer in strong, centralized government, Jefferson advocating a small federal government, deferential to the states.

By 1826, Jefferson and Adams were among the last survivors among the founding generation.  Only a handful yet remained.

No fiction author, no Hollywood screenwriter would dare put to paper an ending so unlikely, so unbelievable, as that which then took place. These two men, central among the hundreds who gave us this self governing Republic, died on the same day. July 4, 1826. Fifty years to the day from the birth of the Republic, they had helped to create.

Adams was 90 as he lay on his deathbed, suffering from congestive heart failure. His last words were “Thomas Jefferson still survives”. He had no way to know. The author of the Declaration of Independence had died that morning, at his Monticello home. Jefferson was 82.

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John Adams’ son John Quincy was himself President at the time of the two men’s passing, and remarked that the coincidence was among the “visible and palpable remarks of Divine Favor”.

A month after the two men passed, Daniel Webster spoke of these two men at Faneuil Hall, in Boston.

“No two men now live, (or) any two men have ever lived, in one age, who (have) given a more lasting direction to the current of human thought. No age will come, in which the American Revolution will appear less than it is, one of the greatest events in human history. No age will come, in which it will cease to be seen and felt, on either continent, that a mighty step, a great advance, not only in American affairs, but in human affairs, was made on the 4th of July 1776″.

A Blessed Independence Day, to you and yours. – Rick Long, the “ Cape Cod Curmudgeon”

June 30, 1917 A Bit of Comfort

Imagine if you will a world of trench warfare. A world of mud and rats where instant and violent death is an ever-present possibility. A world of lice and disease and the stink of millions of men in the open, both dead and alive. A world capable of producing psychological trauma on an industrial scale. Now imagine just for a moment, a bit of home made comfort steps into that world.

For a variety of reasons, the eastern front of the “War to end all Wars” was a war of movement. Not so in the West.  As early as October 1914, combatants burrowed into the ground like animals sheltering from what Private Ernst Jünger would come to call, the ‘Storm of Steel’.

Conditions in the trenches and dugouts must have defied description. You would have smelled the trenches long before you could see them. The collective funk of a million men and more, enduring the troglodyte existence of men who live in holes. Little but verminous scars in the earth teaming with rats and lice and swarming with flies. Time and again the shells churned up and pulverized the soil, the water and the shattered remnants of once-great forests, along with the bodies of the slain.

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By the time the United States entered the ‘War to end all Wars’ in April, 1917, millions had endured three years of this existence. The first 14,000 Americans arrived ‘over there’ in June, the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) forming on July 5. American troops fought the military forces of Imperial Germany alongside their British and French allies, others joining Italian forces in the struggle against the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

You couldn’t call the stuff these people lived in mud – it was more like a thick slime, a clinging, sucking ooze capable of swallowing grown men, even horses and mules, alive.

Captain Alexander Stewart wrote “Most of the night was spent digging men out of the mud. The only way was to put duck boards on each side of him and work at one leg: poking and pulling until the suction was relieved. Then a strong pull by three or four men would get one leg out, and work would begin on the other…He who had a corpse to stand or sit on, was lucky”.

Sir Launcelot Kiggell broke down in tears, on first seeing the horror of Paschendaele, . “Good God”, he said. “Did we really send men to fight in That?”

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Unseen and unnoticed in times of such dread calamity, are the humanitarian workers. Those who tend to the physical and spiritual requirements and the countless small comforts, of those so afflicted.

Within days of the American declaration of war, Evangeline Booth, National Commander of the Salvation Army, responded, saying “The Salvationist stands ready, trained in all necessary qualifications in every phase of humanitarian work, and the last man will stand by the President for execution of his orders”.

These people are so much more than that donation truck, and the bell ringers we see behind the red kettles, every December.

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Lieutenant Colonel William S. Barker of the Salvation Army left New York with Adjutant Bertram Rodda on June 30, 1917, to survey the situation. It wasn’t long before his not-so surprising request came back in a cable from France. Send ‘Lassies’.

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A small group of carefully selected female officers was sent to France on August 22. That first party comprised six men, three women and a married couple. Within fifteen months their number had expanded by a factor of 400.

In December 1917, a plea for a million dollars went out to support the humanitarian work of the Salvation Army, the YMCA, YWCA, War Camp Community Service, National Catholic War Council, Jewish Welfare Board, the American Library Association and others. This “United War Work Campaign” raised $170 million in private donations, equivalent to $27.6 billion, today.

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‘Hutments’ were formed all over the front, many right out at the front lines.  There were canteen services.  Religious observances of all denominations were held in these facilities. Concert performances were given, clothing mended and words of kindness  offered in response to all manner of personal problems.  On one occasion, the Loyal Order of Moose conducted a member initiation. Pies and cakes were baked in crude ovens and lemonade served to hot and thirsty troops.

Of all these corporal works of mercy, the ones best remembered by the ‘doughboys’ themselves, were the doughnuts.

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Helen Purviance, sent to France in 1917 with the American 1st Division, seems to have been first with the idea. An ensign with the Salvation Army, Purviance and fellow ensign Margaret Sheldon first formed the dough by hand, later using a wine bottle in lieu of a rolling pin. Having no doughnut cutter at the time, dough was shaped and twisted into crullers, fried seven at a time in a lard-filled helmet, on a pot-bellied wood stove.

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The work was grueling. The women worked well into the night that first day, serving all of 150 hand-made doughnuts. “I was literally on my knees,” Purviance recalled, but it was easier than bending down all day, on that tiny wood stove. It didn’t seem to matter. Men stood in line for hours, patiently waiting in the mud and the rain of that world of misery, for their own little piece of warm, home-cooked heaven.

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Techniques gradually improved and it certainly helped, when these there was a real pan to cook in. These ladies were soon turning out 2,500 to 9,000 doughnuts a day. An elderly French blacksmith made Purviance a doughnut cutter, out of a condensed milk can and a camphor-ice tube, attached to a wooden block.

Before long the pleasant aroma of hot doughnuts could be detected, wafting all over the dugouts and trenches of the western front.  Salvation Army volunteers and others made apple pies and all manner of other goodies, but the name that stuck, was “Doughnut Lassies”.

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June 2, 2017 – Salvation Army employees Cheryl Freismuth (l) and Susan Klyk (c) celebrate the 100th anniversary of the “Doughnut Lassies” of WW1 with student Catie McDougall (r). H/T The Detroit News

One New York Times correspondent wrote in 1918 “When I landed in France I didn’t think so much of the Salvation Army; after two weeks with the Americans at the front I take my hat off… [W]hen the memoirs of this war come to be written the doughnuts and apple pies of the Salvation Army are going to take their place in history”.

Contrary to popular myth the doughnut was not invented in WW1. Neither was the name for soldiers of the Great War although millions of “doughboys” returned from ‘over there’ requesting wives, mothers sweethearts and local bakeries make their newfound favorite confection. Russian émigré Adolph Levitt invented the first doughnut machine in 1920. The round cake with the hole in the middle, has never looked back.

If you’re interested, the Doughnut Lassies’ original WW1 recipe may be found, HERE. Let me know how they come out.

June 24, 1535 Doctrinal Differences

To the modern reader, theological issues such as the “moral bank account” of saints or the transubstantiation of the body and blood of Christ, may seem mere doctrinal interpretations.


A popular legend depicts the Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailing a parchment to the door of the Wittenberg Palace Church in 1517, his “ninety five theses” a direct challenge to the authority of the pope, and the Catholic church. It likely never happened that way. Luther had no intention of confronting the Church. Subsequent events would harden Luther’s attitudes toward the Church but for now, this was but ninety-five propositions, framed and submitted for scholarly disputation.

Luther enclosed his “ninety five theses” in a letter to the Archbishop of Mainz on October 31, the date now considered to be the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

Major Christian Denominations

H/T Wikipedia

To the modern reader, theological issues such as the “moral bank account” of saints or the transubstantiation of the body and blood of Christ, may seem mere doctrinal interpretations. In the late middle and early modern ages, such issues were matters of life and death. The Czech theologian Jan Hus was burned at the stake for such heresy, in 1415. The English philosopher John Wycliffe, dead some forty-four years by this time, was dug up and burned, his ashes cast upon the waters of the River Swift.

The European Reformation exploded with startling intensity, spawning a “peasant rebellion” in 1524 in which about a third of 300,000 poorly armed farmers, were slaughtered.  There were any number of reformers, few more radical than the baker turned Anabaptist prophet, Jan Matthias.

Münster was a divided city in 1530, made even more so when the evangelical Lutheran minister Bernard Rothmann, began preaching against Catholic doctrine.  Rothmann was tireless, vitriolic, a relentless stream of anti-Catholic invective both from the pulpit, and from a series of pamphlets financed and printed by his ally, the wealthy wool merchant Bernard Knipperdolling.

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Alarmed at the preacher’s growing influence, church authorities banned Rothmann from the pulpit.  A mob of supporters stormed St. Lambert’s church in February 1532 and installed Rothmann, as its preacher. Conflict escalated and took the form of armed rebellion that December, between nine-hundred armed townspeople and the highest ranking Church official in town, prince-bishop Franz von Waldeck. This time, the conflict was settled peaceably. Waldeck signed a treaty of religious toleration on February 14, 1533, allowing Protestant pastors to preach from the parish churches of Münster.

The next time would be very different.

Word got back to Matthias and his followers, who came to see Münster as the “New Jerusalem”.  Jan Matthias and his Anabaptist followers were radicals even among their fellow “protestants”, and Rothmann was happy to come along.  Theirs was an extreme, radical egalitarian ideology with no use for childhood baptism.  They believed that Jesus Christ would descend to earth that Easter and bring about the End of Time.  The Apocalypse was nigh. All good Christians needed to prepare, and only adult baptism held the key to salvation.

Four years earlier, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V ordered that every Anabaptist “shall be brought from natural life to death with fire, sword, or the like.”  Now Anabaptists poured into Münster, baptizing some 1,400 adults in the first week after their arrival, about 20 percent of the adult population.

Equal numbers fled the city, amid “share-the-wealth” economic policies that would make the most fervent communist, blush.  Armed city employees warned those who refused adult baptism to flee:  “Get out of here, you godless. God will punish you!

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Matthias demanded the execution of all Catholics and Lutherans, warning that “Everywhere we are surrounded by dogs and sorcerers and whores and killers and the godless and all who love lies and commit them!”  That was a bit too much even for the crazies, so Catholics and moderate Protestants were expelled from the city.  About 2,000 of them, as equal numbers of Anabaptist radicals, poured in from the countryside.

Matthias ordered every contract, account and ledger in town destroyed, in a vain attempt to abolish all debt.  Rothmann preached from the pulpit of St. Lambert’s: “Everything that Christian brothers and sisters have belongs to the one as well as to the other.”

Waldeck looked on with increasing alarm and before long, a mercenary army was assembled outside the city walls of Münster.  The place was now under siege.

Easter Sunday arrived, April 5, 1534. Jesus, did not. With his apocalyptic prophesy thus shattered, Matthias claimed to have a new, divine vision. He would ride forth from the city walls, and personally break von Waldeck’s siege of the city. So it was that the Anabaptist prophet saddled up and rode forth with an entourage of twelve, only to be run through with a spear, his head mounted on a spike, for all the town to see.

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Up stepped the dead prophet’s right-hand man, the charismatic twenty-five year old tailor Jan van Leiden, who delivered a speech reinterpreting the day’s events, and postponing doomsday.

Münster became heavily militarized as Waldeck’s besieging force cut off all access to the city.  Jan van Leiden ruled over the city as the new King David, according to his own prophesy.  He seemed to think he had a direct line “upstairs” and could conjure up fresh prophesy at a moment’s notice.  The seventy-five hundred inhabitants of Münster, believed so as well.

The siege dragged on through 1534 and into the following year.  In May 1535, the Anabaptist carpenter Heinrich Gresbeck attempted to escape, only to be caught.  In exchange for his life, Gresbeck agreed to show Waldeck a lightly defended gate.

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The prince-bishop’s forces fought their way through the streets of Münster on June 25, 1535, killing some 600 Anabaptists before the city surrendered.

Jan van Leiden, “viceroy” Bernhard Knipperdolling and Anabaptist leader Bernhard Krechting were taken to the public square six months later, chained to posts and literally torn to pieces, with white-hot pliers.

Imagine the scene. The sentences encompassed precisely sixty minutes of such treatment. Two executioners and four sets of tongs lest the other two, be out of the coals for too long. Leiden endured an hour of such treatment as first his flesh and then sinew, was torn from his frame. He never made a sound.

Knipperdolling struggled frantically against the spiked collar which held him fast for he knew, he was next. Finally it was Krechting’s turn. Should a man pass out from the agony the clock would be stopped and the prisoner, revived. Then the process would begin, anew. Sixty minutes with those white-hot tongs and not a moment, less.

Finally a dagger was thrust into each man’s heart to end his appointed hour. Their hideously mutilated corpses were placed in cages and hanged from the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church, as a warning to others.

Some fifty years later their bones were removed, but not those cages.  In 1880 the old steeple was torn down and a new one built in its place. The cages, were reinstalled.

On November 18, 1944, British bombs hit St. Lambert’s church, knocking the highest cage, van Leiden’s, to the ground. Another fell into the organ loft, leaving the third hanging only, by a thread. The church rebuilt the tower, four years later.  Workers repaired and replaced the cages, commenting favorably on their sturdy construction.

Three decades ago, St. Lambert’s church installed a small yellow bulb in each of those cages, a small concession “in memory of their departed souls.”  The cages of Münster remain there, to this day.

June 22, 1918 Showmen’s Rest

127 were injured and an estimated 86 crushed or burned to death in the wreck.  The saddest thing you could ever imagine was the sight of a clown, his name was Joe Coyle, weeping inconsolably beside the dead and mangled bodies of his wife and two children.

In the world of the Big Top, the term “First of May” describes a new employee’s first season, with the circus.

There’s an oft-repeated but mistaken notion, that the circus goes back to Roman antiquity. The panem et circenses, “bread and circuses” of Juvenal (circa A.D. 100), refers more to the ancient precursor of the modern racetrack, than to the modern circus. The only common denominator is the word itself, as the Latin root ‘circus’, translates into English, as “circle”.

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The father of the modern circus is the British Sergeant-Major turned showman, Philip Astley. A talented horseman, Astley opened a riding school near the River Thames in 1768, where he taught in the morning and performed ‘feats of horsemanship’ in the afternoon.

Astley’s afternoon shows gained overwhelming popularity by 1770, when he hired acrobats, rope-dancers and jugglers to fill the spaces between equestrian events. The modern circus, was born.

Equestrian and trick riding shows were gaining popularity all over Europe at this time, performers riding in circles to keep their balance while standing on the backs of galloping horses.  It didn’t hurt matters, that the “ring” made it easier for spectators to view the event.

In 1825, Joshuah Purdy Brown of Somers New York replaced the wooden structure common to European circuses with a canvas tent, around the time when a cattle dealer named Hachaliah Bailey bought a young African elephant, which he exhibited all over the country. The exotic animal angle was a great success. Other animals were added and soon farmers were leaving their fields, to get into the traveling menagerie business.

The unique character of the American traveling circus emerged in 1835, when 135 such farmers and menagerie owners combined with three affiliated circuses to form the American Zoological Institute.

Phineas Taylor Barnum and William Cameron Coup launched P.T. Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie & Circus in 1871, where the “museum” part was a separate exhibition of human and animal oddities.  It wouldn’t be long, before the ‘sideshow” became a standard feature of the American circus.

There have been no fewer than 81 major circuses in American history, and countless smaller ones. ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ broke down its tent for the last time in 2017, when the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus ended a 146-year run. There was a time though, when the circus really WAS, the greatest show on earth.

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The American war machine was spinning up to peak operational capacity in 1918, as the industrial might of the nation pursued the end to the war ‘over there’.

At 3:56 on the morning of June 22, 1918, an engineer with the Michigan Central Railroad was at the controls of an empty 21-car troop train. Automatic signals and flares should have warned him that there was a stalled train on the track ahead. A frantic flag man tried and failed to get him to stop. Alonzo Sargent had been fired before, for sleeping on the job. Tonight, Sargent was once again, asleep at the wheel.

The Hagenbeck-Wallace circus was a big deal in those days. The famous lion tamer Clyde Beatty was a member, as was a young Red Skelton, on this night tagging along with his father, who worked as a clown.

The 26-car Hagenbeck-Wallace circus train was enroute from Hammond Indiana to Monroe Wisconsin, when an overheated axle box required an unscheduled stop.

Most of the 400 circus employees were asleep at that early hour, in one of four rear sleeping cars.

The Michigan Central locomotive smashed into the rear of the stalled train at 60mph. Strong men, bareback riders, trapeze performers and acrobats were killed instantly. Others were horribly maimed, as wooden sleeping cars telescoped into one another. Confused and bleeding survivors struggled to emerge from the wreckage as gas-fed lanterns began to set all that wood on fire.

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Those lucky enough to escape looked on in horror, as friends and family members were burned alive. Some had to be physically restrained from rushing back into the inferno.

127 were injured and an estimated 86 crushed or burned to death in the wreck. The saddest thing you could ever imagine was the sight of a clown, his name was Joe Coyle, weeping inconsolably beside the dead and mangled bodies of his wife and two children.

The rumor mill went berserk. Wild lions and tigers had escaped and were roaming the streets and back yards of Gary, Indiana. Elephants died in the heroic attempt to put out the flames, spraying water on the burning wreckage with their trunks. None of the stories were true. The animals had passed through hours before on one of two additional trains, and now awaited a train that would never come.

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The Showmen’s League of America was formed in 1913, with Buffalo Bill Cody its first President. The group purchased a 750-plot parcel at the Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois only a year earlier, calling it “Showmen’s Rest”. They had no idea their investment would be used so soon.

Only thirteen of the dead were ever identified. A mass grave was dug for the unidentified and unidentifiable. Most of the dead were roustabouts or temporary workers, hired just recently and known only by nicknames. Then there were the performers known only by stage names, their gravestones inscribed with names like “Baldy,” “4-Horse Driver”, “Smiley,” and “Unknown Female #43.

Only one show had to be canceled, as erstwhile ‘competitors’ Barnum & Bailey, Ringling brothers and others lent workers, performers and equipment. The show would go on.

Today, the International Circus Hall of Fame is located in the former Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus winter headquarters in Peru, Indiana.

In the elephant world, an upraised trunk symbolizes joy. Five elephant statues circumscribe the Showmen’s Rest section of Woodlawn cemetery. Each has a foot raised with a ball underneath. Their trunks hang low, a symbol of mourning. The largest of the five bears the inscription, “Showmen’s League of America.” On the other four are inscribed the words: “Showmen’s Rest”.

June 21, 1633 The Last Word

Revenge it is said, is a dish best served, cold.

From the time of antiquity, science took the “geocentric” view of the solar system. Earth exists at the center of celestial movement with the sun and planetary bodies revolving around our own little sphere.

The perspective was widely held but by no means unanimous.  In the third century BC the Greek astronomer and mathematician Aristarchus of Samos put the Sun in the center of the universe.  Later Greek astronomers Hipparchus and Ptolemy agreed, refining Aristarchus’ methods to arrive at a fairly accurate estimate for the distance to the moon, but theirs remained the minority view.

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Earth is at the center of this model of the universe created by Bartolomeu Velho, a Portuguese cartographer, in 1568. H/T: NASA/Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

In the 15th century, Polish mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus parted ways with the orthodoxy of his time, describing a “heliocentric” model of the universe placing the sun at the center.  The Earth and other bodies, according to this model, revolved around the sun.

Copernicus wisely refrained from publishing such ideas until the end of his life, fearing to offend the religious sensibilities of the time. Legend has it that he was presented with an advance copy of his “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) on awakening on his death bed, from a stroke-induced coma. He took one look at his book, closed his eyes and never opened them again.

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Copernicus’ ‘heliocentric’ view of the universe.

The Italian physicist, mathematician, and astronomer Galileo Galilei came along, about a hundred years later. The “Father of Modern Observational Astronomy”, Galileo’s improvements to the telescope and resulting astronomical observations supporting the Copernican heliocentric view.

Bad news for Galileo, they also brought him to the attention of the Roman Inquisition.

Biblical references such as, “The Lord set the Earth on its Foundations; it can Never be Moved.” (Psalm 104:5) and “And the Sun Rises and Sets and Returns to its Place.” (Ecclesiastes 1:5) were taken at the time as literal and immutable fact and formed the basis for religious objection to the heliocentric model.

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Galileo faces the Roman Inquisition

Galileo was brought before inquisitor Vincenzo Maculani for trial. The astronomer backpedaled before the Inquisition, but only to a point, testifying in his fourth deposition on June 21, 1633: “I do not hold this opinion of Copernicus, and I have not held it after being ordered by injunction to abandon it. For the rest, here I am in your hands; do as you please”.

There is a story about Galileo, which may or may not be true. Refusing to accept the validity of his own conviction, the astronomer muttered “Eppur si muove” — “And yet it moves”.

The Inquisition condemned the astronomer to “abjure, curse, & detest” his Copernican heliocentric views, returning him to house arrest at his villa in 1634, there to spend the rest of his life. Galileo Galilei, the Italian polymath who all but orchestrated the transition from late middle ages to  scientific Renaissance, died on January 8, 1642, desiring to be buried in the main body of the Basilica of Santa Croce, next to the tombs of his father and ancestors. 

His final wishes were ignored at the time, though not forever. His final wishes would be honored some ninety-five years later, when Galileo was re-interred according to his wishes, in the basilica.

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Basilica of Santa Croce, in Florence

Often, atmospheric conditions in these burial vaults lead to natural mummification of the corpse. Sometimes, they look almost lifelike. When it came to the saints, believers took this to be proof of the incorruptibility of these individuals, and small body parts were taken as holy relics.

Such a custom seems ghoulish to us today, but the practice was was quite old by the 18th century.  Galileo is not now and never was a Saint of the Catholic church, quite the opposite.  The Inquisition had judged the man an enemy of the church, a heretic.

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“A bust of Galileo at the Galileo Museum in Florence, Italy. The museum is displaying recovered parts of his body”. H/T New York Times

Even so, the condition of Galileo’s body may have made him appear thus “incorruptible”.  Be that as it may, one Anton Francesco Gori removed the thumb, index and middle fingers on March 12, 1737. The digits with which Galileo wrote down his theories of the cosmos. The digits with which he adjusted his telescope.

The other two fingers and a tooth disappeared in 1905, leaving the middle finger from Galileo’s right hand on exhibit at the Museo Galileo in Florence, Italy. 

Locked in a glass case, the finger points upward, toward the sky.

23galileo2-cnd-popup100 years later, two fingers and a tooth were purchased at auction, and since rejoined their fellow digit at the Museo Galileo. To this day these are the only human body parts, in a museum otherwise devoted to scientific instrumentation.

379 years after his death, Galileo’s extremity points upward, toward the glory of the cosmos.  Either that or the most famous middle finger on earth, flipping the bird in eternal defiance to those lesser specimens who once condemned him, for ideas ahead of his time.