April 21, 2019 The Easter Bunny

Many of the secular symbols associated with Easter trace back to the pagan goddess of spring and the dawn, Ēostre or Ostara, from the Old English Ēastre. History fades into mythology in the pre-Christian usage and accounts differ, but this Teutonic deity was frequently depicted with eggs symbolizing the rebirth of Spring.  And rabbits.

In Christian tradition, Jesus of Nazareth was crucified on Good Friday, arising from the dead two days later to reveal himself to his disciples, before finally ascending to heaven.

So where did the Easter Bunny come from?

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“Titian’s painting The Madonna of the Rabbit depicts this relationship. Mary holds the rabbit in the foreground, signifying both her virginity and fertility. The rabbit is white to convey her purity and innocence.” H/T Ancient-Origins.net

Many of the secular symbols associated with Easter trace back to the pagan goddess of spring and the dawn, Ēostre or Ostara, from the Old English Ēastre. History fades into mythology in the pre-Christian usage and accounts differ, but this Teutonic deity was frequently depicted with eggs symbolizing the rebirth of Spring.  And rabbits.

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Hat tip Ancient-Origins.net for this image

It’s small wonder that the latter symbolized fertility.  A female Hare, called a “Jill” has a 42-day gestation period, and is capable of conceiving while still pregnant.  Kriss Kringle and an egg laying Easter Hare called “Osterhase” or “Oschter Haws” came to America in the 1700s, with German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania. Children would make nests of clothing and blankets, in which the creature could lay its colored eggs. This is the origin of the Easter basket.

Hares and rabbits are different species of the same family, like sheep and goats. Until the 18th century, rabbits were called Coneys, after the Latin “cuniculus”. The word has all but disappeared from American English vernacular, its only use today relates to Coney Island, in New York.  It was around that time that the diminutive, fuzzier “bunny” came to replace the Easter Hare.

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The Three Hares – A Curiosity Worth Regarding by Tom Greeves, Sue Andrew and Chris Chapman

More recently, the discovery of a Medieval “Three Hares” motif in a minor cathedral in Devon England led archaeologist and historian Tom Greeves, art history researcher Sue Andrew and documentary photographer Chris Chapman on a trans-continental odyssey, from Great Britain across the Eurasian landmass, to discover the origins of the enigmatic symbol.

The design depicts three hares in a triangle, each possessed of one ear and making in all, six.  The image appears in tapestry, architecture and/or precious objects emanating from at least four of the world’s great faith traditions including Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam, cropping up from English cathedrals to Italian monasteries, German synagogues, Iranian metalwork and Russian reliquary caskets to Buddhist cave temples in North West China.

The three hares image may have spread across the 4,000-mile “Spice Road” during the  “Pax Mongolica” period of the 13th and 14th centuries, in which it was said  “A maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm.”

For Greeves, Andrew and Chapman, three decades of work has culminated in The Three Hares, a Curiosity Worth Regarding, a volume I have personally added to my must read list.

Hat tip Three Hares Project 2018 and Chris Chapman photography, to whom these images are copyrighted  http://www.chrischapmanphotography.co.uk

History gives us one tale concerning rabbits having nothing whatever to do with Easter, but it’s  too good not to tell here.

download (34)The story involves no less a figure than Napoleon Bonaparte.  In July 1807, Napoleon had just signed the Treaty of Tilsit, ending the war between the French Empire and Imperial Russia. As a means of celebration, Napoleon suggested a rabbit hunt, and ordered Chief of Staff Alexandre Berthier, to make it happen.

Berthier put together an outdoor luncheon, inviting the highest brass from the French military. Meanwhile, Napoleon’s men ranged far and wide, collecting rabbits for the hunt. As many as 3,000 of them.

Napoleon arrived at one side of a grassy field with his beaters and gun bearers, with all those caged rabbits lined up on the other side. Rabbits and Hares are predictably shy and retiring creatures, but Berthier’s soldiers had found it easier to pilfer domesticated rabbits instead of flushing out the wild variety, and these things were hungry.

The hunt was supposed to begin when all those cages opened but, instead of scattering, a swarm of rabbits thought it was dinner time and pelted straight across the field.

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H/T wearethemighty.com

The most powerful man in the world thought it was funny at first, until all those rabbits started coming up his legs. Coachmen cracked bullwhips and men grabbed sticks.  There was shooting and shouting and pandemonium, everywhere.  Still, the bunny horde came on.

French General and diarist Baron Paul Thiébault was there, let him tell the story:

“The intrepid rabbits turned to the Emperor’s flank, attacked him frantically in the rear, refused to quit their hold, piled themselves up between his legs till they made him stagger, and forced the conqueror of conquerors, fairly exhausted, to retreat and leave them in possession of the field”.

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H/T Warner Bros., Napoleon Bunny-Part

Napoleon retreated to his carriage, but the onslaught, continued. Historian David Chandler picks up the story:

“With a finer understanding of Napoleonic strategy than most of his generals, the rabbit horde divided into two wings and poured around the flanks of the party and headed for the imperial coach.”

The tide of bunnies continued the advance, some even got into the carriage.  The bunny blitz finally ebbed away, only as the Royal Conveyance drove out of sight.

So it is that Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, a General who fought and won more battles than Hannibal Barca, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Frederick the Great, combined, was defeated and driven out of town…

By bunnies.

Featured image, top of page: The Dreihasenfenster (Window of Three Hares), Paderborn Cathedral, Germany. Photo source: Public Domain. H/T ancient-origins.net

 

A Trivial Matter
According to WomansDay.com, Americans are expected to spend over $2 Billion on Cadbury eggs, jelly beans and other Easter candies, this year. Peeps, the number one seller (sorry Cadbury), came out in 1953 when each one was extruded, from a pastry tube. In those days, Peeps took twenty-seven hours to set. These days’ they’re ready to eat in about six minutes.
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April 20, 1949 Ship’s Cat

The Dickin Medal has been awarded 71 times since its inception, recipients including 34 dogs, 32 pigeons, 4 horses and, to date, one cat.  A ship’s cat, the champion rat killer of the Yangtze, Simon. 

Mankind first crossed the line from hunter-gatherer to farmer, some ten thousand years ago. The earliest civilization known mainly for agricultural subsistence is the naturally well-watered region around Jericho, circa 8000BC. From that day to this, grain stockpiles and domesticated livestock have attracted vermin.  With that came the wild ancestor of the common house cat, Felis silvestris catus.

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From the earliest times when man took to the sea, food stores were an attractive free ride, for rodents.

Rats reach sexual maturity in as little as four to five weeks and complete the act of procreation, in the blink of an eye. Litters average 8 to 14 “kittens” and run as high, as 21. With an average gestation period of only 21 to 23 days, rat infestations get out of hand with shocking rapidity.

Left uncontrolled, rats and mice can destroy ship’s stores in a matter of weeks. The “ship’s cat” was a feature of life at sea from the earliest days, first controlling damage to pantries, ropes and woodwork and, in more modern times, electrical wiring.  To say nothing, of rat-borne disease.

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Not without reason, are cats seen as good luck at sea. The power of cats to land upright is due to extraordinarily sensitive inner ears, able to detect even minor changes in barometric pressure. Sailors paid careful attention to the cat’s behavior, often the first sign of foul weather ahead.

Once driven nearly to extinction, the Norwegian Forest cat (Norwegian: Norsk skogkatt) is believed to descend from Viking-era ship’s cats, brought to the Scandinavian peninsula from the modern-day United Kingdom, sometime in the first millennium.

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Norwegian Forest Cat

“Simon” was found in 1948, one of countless and nameless cats roaming the dockyards of Stonecutter’s Island, in Hong Kong. He was about a year old at that time, a sickly little waif, smuggled on board the HMS Amethyst by 17-year-old Ordinary Seaman, George Hickinbottom. Lieutenant Commander Ian Griffiths liked cats, and well understood the threat posed by rodents, in the hot and humid weather in that time and place.  Happily, the job of ship’s cat was open at that time, however (says Hickinbottom), ‘He warned me that if he saw any muck on board, he’d have me up on a charge.’ The crew made sure any ‘muck’ was quietly tossed overboard.

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Simon, the Amethyst cat

Simon quickly earned the admiration of the Amethyst crew, with his prowess as a rat killer. Seamen learned to check their beds for “presents” of dead rats while Simon himself could usually be found, curled up and sleeping in the Captain’s cap.

China was embroiled in a Civil War at this time, between the Nationalist Kuomintang led Republic of China and the Communist Party led People’s Republic of China.

The first mission assigned to incoming Skipper Bernard Skinner was to travel up the Yangtze River to Nanjing to replace the duty ship HMS Consort, then standing guard over the British embassy.  On this day in 1949 and only a hundred miles upriver, Amethyst came under fire from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

yi4Amethyst returned fire but it wasn’t long before she was disabled, run aground with most of her guns too high to return fire.  The first salvo from the Communist guns exploded in the Captain’s quarters, mortally wounding Commander Skinner and badly injuring the ship’s cat.

By 9:30, wounded First Lieutenant Geoffrey L. Weston made his last transmission: “Under heavy fire. Am aground in approx. position 31.10′ North 119.20′ East. Large number of casualties”.

The order was given to evacuate and some managed to swim to the Nationalist side, despite fire from Communist batteries. For the rest, the following three months turned to a tense and deadly standoff known as the Amethyst Incident.

Simon was brought to the sick bay, where surviving members of the medical staff removed four pieces of shrapnel from his body and dressed his burned flesh and singed fur.  He was not expected to make it through the night.

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As the weeks dragged to months, Simon did not die but recovered and resumed his duties, below decks.  A good thing it was, too.  The trapped and cornered vessel was overrun, with vermin.  Simon returned to his work with a vengeance, even earning the fanciful rank of “Able Sea Cat” after killing one notorious rat known as Mao Tse-tung.

peopleThe Amethyst incident resulted in the death of 47 British seamen with another 74, wounded. HMS Amethyst herself sustained heavy damage in the episode.  The heavy cruiser HMS London, the destroyer HMS Consort and the sloop HMS Black Swan were also damaged.

Unseen amidst the economic devastation of World War One, the domesticated animals of Great Britain were in desperate straits. Turn-of-the-century social reformer Maria Elizabeth “Mia” Dickin founded the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) in 1917, working to lighten the dreadful state of animal health in Whitechapel, London. To this day, the PDSA is one of the largest veterinary charities in the United Kingdom, conducting over a million free veterinary consultations, every year.

The “Dickin Medal” was instituted on December 2, 1943, honoring the work performed by animals in World War Two.  The “animal’s Victoria Cross”, it is equivalent to the highest accolade in the British system of military honors, comparable to the American Medal of Honor.

The Dickin Medal has been awarded 71 times since its inception, recipients including 34 dogs, 32 pigeons, 4 horses and, to date, one cat.  A ship’s cat, the champion rat killer of the Yangtze, Simon.

Simon returned to accolades in Great Britain, awarded a Blue Cross medal, the Amethyst campaign medal and Naval General Service Medal with Yangtze clasp.  Unhappily, Simon did not survive his war wounds, after all.  Required to be placed in quarantine like any animal entering the United Kingdom, Simon succumbed to complications of his injuries and died on November 28, 1949.

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Hundreds attended Simon’s funeral at the PDSA Ilford Animal Cemetery in east London, including the entire crew of HMS Amethyst. These words were inscribed on the stone, which marks his grave:

IN
MEMORY OF
“SIMON”
SERVED IN
H.M.S. AMETHYST
MAY 1948 — NOVEMBER 1949
AWARDED DICKIN MEDAL
AUGUST 1949
DIED 28TH NOVEMBER 1949.
THROUGHOUT THE YANGTZE INCIDENT
HIS BEHAVIOUR WAS OF THE HIGHEST ORDER

    

A Trivial Matter
“Oskar” was plucked from the ocean on May 27, 1941 by sailors from HMS Cossack, following the sinking of the German Battleship, Bismarck. So named from the International Code of Signals for the letter ‘O’, code for “Man Overboard”, Oskar became ship’s cat aboard the British warship until October 27 when a German torpedo blew off the forward one-third of the destroyer, killing 159 sailors. Oskar survived this disaster as well, making his way to land and thence to the British aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and dubbed “Unsinkable Sam”. The mighty carrier was herself sunk by a German torpedo on November 14, leaving Unsinkable Sam “angry but quite unharmed” clinging to a plank, in open ocean. World War Two would would rage for another four years, but not this particular ship’s cat. A superstitious lot, no sailor wanted any part of a shipmate who’d been through three wrecks. Sam was transferred first to the Governor of Gibraltar and then back to the United Kingdom where he lived out the rest of his days, at the “Home for Sailors”, in Belfast.
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April 4, 1926  American War Dog

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.

sgt_stubby_7 (1)By the last year of the Great War, the French, British and Belgians had at least 20,000 dogs on the battlefield.  Imperial Germany had 30,000.

General Headquarters of the American Expeditionary Force 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.

America’s first war dog, “Stubby”, got there by accident, and served 18 months ‘over there’, participating in seventeen battles on the Western Front.

He looked like a terrier of some kind, similar to a pit bull.  Nobody knows anything more about him.  He showed up as a stray at Yale Field in New Haven, Connecticut, while a group of soldiers were training. The dog hung around as the men drilled and one soldier, Corporal Robert Conroy, started taking care of him. Conroy hid Stubby on board the troop ship when the outfit shipped out in 1917.

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Stubby saved his regiment from surprise \gas attacks, located and comforted the wounded, and even once caught a German spy by the seat of his pants. The Hun, who’d been prowling behind allied lines at the time, was mapping trenches for artillery bombardment.   He was found spinning in circles with a large, muscular terrier affixed to his behind.  The Bosch was easily disarmed, but it took a considerable amount of coaxing before Stubby could be persuaded to let go of that German’s rear end.

Stubby-Conroy-HistoricalStubby saw his first action at Chemin des Dames. Since the boom of artillery fire didn’t faze him, he learned to follow the men’s example of ducking when the big ones came close. It became a great game to see who could hit the dugout, first.  After a few days, the guys were watching him for a signal. Stubby was always the first to hear incoming fire.  We can only guess how many lives were spared by his early warning.

Following the Armistice, Stubby returned home as a nationally acclaimed hero, and was eventually received by presidents Harding and Coolidge. Even General John “Black Jack” Pershing, who commanded the AEF during the war, presented Stubby with a gold medal made by the Humane Society, declaring him to be a “hero of the highest caliber.”

Stubby toured the country by invitation and probably led more parades than any dog in American history.  He was promoted to honorary Sergeant by the Legion, becoming the highest ranking dog to ever serve in the Army.

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Old age caught up with the small warrior on April 4th, 1926, as he took ill and died in his master’s arms.

Sergeant Stubby and a few of his contemporaries were instrumental in inspiring the creation of the US K-9 Corps.  Just in time for World War ll.

 

A Trivial Matter
On returning home following service during WW2, only 4 of 592 Marine Corps dogs failed to adapt to civil life.

February 25, 1944 Soldier Bear

If you’re ever in Edinburgh, stop and see his monument.  Erected in honor of the “Soldier Bear” and his keeper.  The orphaned brown bear who helped to win a World War.

The most destructive war in history began on September 1, 1939, with the Nazi invasion of Poland. German forces invaded from the north, south and west, following an SS-concocted false flag operation known as the Gleiwitz incident. The Soviet Union, then allied with Nazi Germany, invaded from the east on September 17, according to a secret provision of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. Polish forces fought back with stunning bravery, horse cavalry riding to meet German tanks, but little Poland never had a chance. German and Soviet forces were in full control of Polish territory by October 6.

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France and Great Britain declared war in support of their Polish ally on September 3, but effective relief came too little, too late. In the end, some 65,000 Polish troops were killed in the fighting, compared with 16,000 Germans. 420,000 became prisoners of the Reich and a quarter-million more, of the USSR. In April 1942, some 22,000 Polish officers were murdered in the forests of Katyń, an atrocity carried out by Soviet troops but blamed at the time, on German soldiers.

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Scene from the 2007 Polish film, “Katyń”

Some 120,000 Polish troops escaped via neutral Romania, another 20,000 to Latvia and Lithuania. The second Polish Republic was dead, but Polish soldiers made some of the most heroic contributions to the allied war effort. Polish units fought from North Africa to Italy, to the north of Europe. Polish pilots and air crews made some of the largest contributions of any non-British nationality, to the Battle of Britain.  As the first light of dawn broke over the age of the inter-continental ballistic missile, Polish partisans captured the first V2 rocket, that supersonic and potentially game-changing super weapon of the Third Reich.

V2The doors to the Soviet Gulags opened after June 22, 1941, following Hitler’s surprise invasion of his Soviet “Ally”. While tens of thousands of free Poles worked their way to the assistance of France and Great Britain, these former POWs became the core of the Polish II Corps, numbering some 100,000 soldiers by 1945.

Around the time of the Katyń massacre, Polish troops of the newly formed “Anders Army” were passing through Hamedān Iran, in the company of thousands of civilians fleeing Soviet territory. A Kurdish boy was keeping a bear cub at that time, a Syrian brown bear whose mother had been shot, by hunters. Eighteen-year-old Irena Bokiewicz was smitten with the animal, prompting Lieutenant Anatol Tarnowiecki to buy him. The young bear spent three months in a Polish refugee camp before being handed over to the 2nd Transport Company, which later became the 22nd Artillery Supply Company. The soldiers called him Wojtek (“VOY-tek”), the diminutive form of “Wojciech”, meaning “Happy Warrior”.

wojtek5Wojtek was small in the beginning, yet to be weaned from his mother’s milk and having trouble swallowing.  Soldiers fed him condensed milk from an old vodka bottle, leading to honey or syrup and marmalade and whole fruit.

From Iraq through Syria and on to Palestine and Egypt, Wojtek moved with the 22nd Company. He loved to wrestle and learned by imitating, marching alongside on his hind legs, and learning to smoke. As he grew larger, soldiers rewarded Wojtek with a beer, which soon became his favorite libation.

With the Italian armistice of September 3, 1943, Allied planners hoped to occupy the Italian peninsula with minimal bloodshed.  It wasn’t meant to be.  The Italian campaign was embarked on its eighth month on this day in 1944, with another three months yet to go.  No campaign in all the West of Europe, cost the lives of more infantry, on both sides.

I personally have an uncle among them, killed in the fighting around Anzio.

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The shattered ruins of Monte Cassino cost the Allied side 55,000 casualties, to 20,000 Germans. H/T Life Magazine

The 22nd Artillery Supply Company joined a British transport out of Egypt, bound for the Italian peninsula.  Regulations prohibited mascot animals from troop ships.  So it was that Wojtek was officially enlisted as a soldier with his own serial number and paybook, and given the rank of Private.

Twenty divisions of Allied troops were engaged against the fortified strong points at Monte Cassino and the Gustav line, in terrain that would have challenged the talents of a mountain goat. On May 18, the Polish flag was raised over the shattered ruins, followed by the Union Jack. The former abbey had cost the Allies 55,000 casualties.

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“Polish soldiers carry ammunition to the front lines just before the capture of the abbey”. H/T Wikipedia

The 22nd Artillery Supply Company helped provide ammunition during the battle for Monte Cassino, the men carrying 100-pound crates of shells and stacking them on trucks.  Wojtek was quick to imitate and, though a mere stripling of a bear at 200-pounds, could carry a crate by himself, which would’ve taken four men.  He never dropped a single one.800px-Wojtek_soldier_bear.svg

Wojtek’s actions earned him a promotion to the rank of Corporal, his image becoming the official emblem of the 22nd Company.

Wojtek was transported to Berwickshire, Scotland after the war, along with the 22nd Company. There he became a local celebrity, and honorary member of the Polish-Scottish association.

Following full demobilization in 1947, Wojtek was given over to the Edinburgh Zoo, where he spent the rest of his life. Journalists and former Polish soldiers would visit from time to time.  Some would toss him a cigarette which he would eat, not having anyone to light it for him. At the time of his death in 1963, the former soldier bear weighed in at 490-lbs.

If you’re ever in Edinburgh, stop and see his monument.  Erected in honor of the “Soldier Bear” and his keeper.  The orphaned brown bear who helped to win a World War.

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Monument to Wojtek in West Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh
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February 6, 2007 Animals at War

Neither knowing nor caring why they were there, the animals of the Great War suffered at prodigious rates. 

Mitochondrial DNA analysis of Felis silvestris catus suggests two great waves of expansion, first with the dawn of agriculture, when grain stores attracted vermin. Genetic analysis of the common house cat suggests they all descend from one of five feline ancestors: the Sardinian, European, Central Asian, Subsaharan African or the Chinese desert cat.

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The second “cat-spansion” occurred later, as man took to water. From trade routes to diplomatic missions and military raids, men on ships needed food, and that meant rodents. The “ship’s cat” was a feature of life at sea from that day to this, first helping to control damage to food stores, ropes and woodwork and, in modern times, electrical wiring.

Fun fact:  Who knew the Vikings had cats!  Norskskogkatt_Evita_3

One Viking site in North Germany from ca 700-1000AD, contains one cat with Egyptian mitochondrial DNA.  Once driven nearly to extinction, the Norwegian Forest cat (Norwegian: Norsk skogkatt) descends from Viking-era ship’s cats, brought to Norway from Great Britain sometime around 1000AD.

Not without reason, were cats seen as good luck.  The power of cats to land upright is due to extraordinarily sensitive inner ears, capable of detecting even minor changes in barometric pressure.  Sailors paid careful attention to the ship’s cat, often the harbinger of foul weather ahead.

Left to right:  1. Ship’s cat, HMS Queen Elizabeth, Gallipoli Peninsula, 1915. 2. Togo, ships cat aboard the HMS Dreadnought, 3. Ship’s cats “inspect” the breech of a 4-inch gun aboard an unidentified US ship.

When the “Great War” arrived in 1914, animals of all kinds were dragged along.  Cats performed the same functions in vermin infested trenches, as those at sea.

1. Gunner with the regimental cat in a trench in Cambrin, France, February 6th, 1918.  2. Officers of the U.S. 2nd Army Corps with a cat discovered in the ruins of Le Cateau-Cambrésis 3. Trench cat, Gallipoli Peninsula, 1915

Tens of thousands of dogs performed a variety of roles, from ratters to sentries, scouts and runners. “Mercy” dogs were trained to seek out wounded on the battlefield, carrying medical supplies with which the stricken could treat themselves.

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“A dog pulling the wheelchair of a wounded French soldier in the remarkable series of images featured in new book Images of War, Animals in the Great War” H/T Daily Mail

The French trained specialized “chiens sanitaire” to seek out the dead and wounded, and bring back bits of uniform.  Often, dogs provided the comfort of another living soul, so the gravely wounded should not die alone.

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“Messenger dogs pictured running the gauntlet of rifle fire during their training during the First World War” H/T Daily Mail

With the hell of no mans land all but impassable for human runners, dogs stepped up, as messengers. “First Division Rags” ran through a cataract of falling bombs and chemical weapons. Gassed and partially blinded with shrapnel injuries to a paw, eye and ear, Rags still got his message where it needed to be.

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“First Division Rags”

Other times, birds were the most effective means of communication. Carrier pigeons by the tens of thousands flew messages of life and death importance, for Allied and Central Powers, alike.

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“A carrier pigeon held tight before release from the belly of a tank in 1918. Birds were often used to pass messages between troops” H/T Daily Mail
Cher Ami
Cher Ami

During the Meuse-Argonne offensive of 1918, Cher Ami saved 200 men of the “Lost Battalion”, arriving in her coop with a bullet through the breast, one eye shot out and a leg all but torn off, hanging by a single tendon.

Even the lowly garden slug pitched in.  Extraordinarily sensitive to mustard gas, “slug brigades” provided the first gas warnings, allowing precious moments in which to “suit up”.

The keen senses of animals were often the only warning of impending attack.

Albert Marr, JackiePrivate Albert Marr’s Chacma baboon Jackie would give early warning of enemy movement or impending attack with a series of sharp barks, or by pulling on Marr’s tunic.

One of many wrenching images of the Great war took place in April, 1918.  The South African Brigade withdrew under heavy shelling through the West Flanders region of Belgium. Jackie was frantically building a stone wall around himself, when jagged splinters wounded his arm and all but tore off the animal’s leg.  Jackie refused to be carried off by stretcher-bearers, hobbling about on his shattered limb, trying to finish his wall

Constituted on June 13 1917, British Aero Squadron #32 kept a red fox, as unit mascot.

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H/T Daily Mail

The famous Lafayette Escadrille kept a pair of lion cubs, called Whiskey and Soda.

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German soldiers in Hamburg, enlisted the labor of circus elephants in 1915.

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H/T Daily Mail

The light cruiser Dresden was scuttled and sinking fast in 1914, leaving the only creature on board to swim for it.  An hour later an Ensign aboard HMS Glasgow spotted a head, struggling in the waves.  Two sailors dove in and saved him.  They named him “Tirpitz”, after the German Admiral.  Tirpitz the pig served out the rest of the war not in a frying pan, but as ship’s mascot aboard the HMS Glasgow.

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“Tirpitz” the pig

No beast who served in the Great war was as plentiful nor as ill used as the beast of burden, none so much as the horse.   Horses were called up by the millions, along with 80,000 donkeys and mules, 50,000 camels and 11,000 oxen. The United States alone shipped a thousand horses between 1914 and 1917, every day.

thIA31MUJ1Horsepower was indispensable throughout the war from cavalry and mounted infantry to reconnaissance and messenger service, as well as pulling artillery, ambulances, and supply wagons.  With the value of horses to the war effort and difficulty in their replacement,  the loss of a horse was a greater tactical problem in some areas, than the loss of a man.

horses-ww1-bFew ever returned.  An estimated three  quarters died of wretched working conditions.  Exhaustion.  The frozen, sucking mud of the western front.  The mud-borne and respiratory diseases.  The gas, artillery and small arms fire.  An estimated eight million horses were killed on all sides, enough to line up in Boston and make it all the way to London four times, if such a thing were possible.

The United Kingdom entered the war with only eighty motorized vehicles, conscripting a million horses and mules, over the course of the war.  Only one in sixteen, lived to come home.

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Neither knowing nor caring why they were there, the animals of the Great War suffered at prodigious rates.  Humane organizations stepped up, the British Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) processing some 2.5 million animals through veterinary hospitals.  1,850,000 were horses and mules.  85% were treated and returned to the front.

Downsize_Help Save the Horse to Save the Soldier

The American Red Star Animal Relief Program sent medical supplies, bandages, and ambulances to the front lines in 1916, to care for horses injured at a rate of 68,000 per month.

The century before the Great War was a Golden age, mushrooming populations enjoying the greatest rise in living standards, in human history. The economy at home would be dashed to rags and atoms by the Great War. Trade and capital as a proportion of the global economy would not recover to 1913 levels, until 1993.

Unseen amidst the economic devastation of the home front, was the desperate plight of animals.  Turn-of-the-century social reformer Maria Elizabeth “Mia” Dickin founded the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals in 1917, working to lighten the dreadful state of animal health in Whitechapel, London.  To this day, the PDSA is one of the largest veterinary charities in the United Kingdom, carrying out over a million free veterinary consultations, every year.

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Dickin Medal

The “Dickin Medal” was instituted on December 2, 1943, honoring the work performed by animals, in WW2.  The “animal’s Victoria Cross”, the highest British military honor equivalent to the American Medal of honor, is awarded in recognition of “conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty while serving or associated with any branch of the Armed Forces or Civil Defence Units.”

The Dickin Medal has been awarded 71 times, recipients including 34 dogs, 32 pigeons, 4 horses and a cat. An honorary Dickin was awarded in 2014, in honor of all animals serving in the Great War.

Two Dickins were awarded on this day in 2007. the first to Royal Army Veterinary Corps explosives detection dog “Sadie”, a Labrador Retriever whose bomb detection skills saved the lives of untold soldiers and civilians in Kabul, in 2005. The second went to “Lucky”, a German Shepherd and RAF anti-terrorist tracker serving during the Malaya Emergency of 1949 – ’52. Part of a four-dog team including “Bobbie”, “Jasper” and “Lassie”, Lucky alone would survive the “unrelenting heat [of] an almost impregnable jungle“.

Handler Beval Austin Stapleton was on-hand to receive Lucky’s award. “Every minute of every day in the jungle” he said, “we trusted our lives to those four dogs, and they never let us down. Lucky was the only one of the team to survive our time in the Malayan jungle and I’m so proud of the old dog today. I owe my life to him.

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Ship’s cat, Her Majesty’s Australian Ship (HMAS) Encounter, World War I

 

January 25, 1925 The Great Race of Mercy

“It was literally the plague among children. Many families lost three of four children—many lost all”.

In the 4th century BC, Hippocrates of Kos identified an upper respiratory infection, characterized by the formation of a leathery white “pseudomembrane” on the tonsils, pharynx, and/or nasal cavities of its victims.  Early symptoms resemble a cold or flu in which fever, sore throat, and chills lead to bluish skin coloration, painful swallowing, and difficulty breathing.  Late symptoms include cardiac arrhythmia with cranial and peripheral nerve palsies.

German bacteriologist Friedrich August Johannes Loeffler first identified Corynebacterium diphtheriae in the 1880s, the causal agent of the disease Diphtheria.  Within ten years, researchers had developed an effective antitoxin.

Today the disease is all but eradicated in the United States, but diphtheria was once a leading cause of death among children and adults over 40.

Diphtheria is highly contagious and spread by direct physical contact and by breathing aerosolized secretions of its victims.  Spain experienced an outbreak of the disease in 1613. To this day the year is remembered as “El Año de los Garotillos”.  The Year of Strangulations.

A severe outbreak swept through New England in 1735. In one New Hampshire town, one of every three children under the age of 10 died of the disease. In some cases entire families were wiped out. Noah Webster described the outbreak, saying “It was literally the plague among children. Many families lost three of four children—many lost all”.

download (7)Dr. Curtis Welch practiced medicine in Nome, Alaska, in 1925. Several children became ill with what he first diagnosed as tonsillitis. More came down with sore throats, early sufferers beginning to die as Welch observed the pseudomembrane of diphtheria. Dr. Welch had ordered fresh antitoxin the year before, but the shipment hadn’t arrived by the time the ports froze over. By January, all the serum in Nome was expired.

There were 10,000 living in Nome at the time, 2° south of the Arctic Circle. Welch expected a high mortality rate among the 3,000 or so white inhabitants, but the 7,000 area natives: Central Yupik, Inupiaq, St. Lawrence Island Yupik and American Indians with lineage tied to tribes in the lower 48, likely had no immunity whatsoever. Mortality among these populations could be expected to approach 100%.

Five children had already died by January 25, while Dr. Welch suspected more in the remote native camps. A plea for help went out by telegram and an Anchorage hospital came up with 300,204 units of serum. Enough for 30 patients. A million units would be required. but, perhaps this would be enough to stave off epidemic. Until a larger shipment arrived, in February.

A 20-lb cylinder containing the antitoxin and wrapped in protective fur shipped as far as it could by rail, arriving at Nenana, 674 miles from Nome. Three vintage biplanes were available, but all were in pieces, and none could be started in the sub-arctic cold. The antitoxin would have to go the rest of the way, by dog sled.

On January 27, a US Marshal pounded on the door of Willard J. “Wild Bill” Shannon, begging for his help with the relay to Nome.   It was after midnight and −50° Fahrenheit , when Shannon and his nine-dog team received the serum. The temperature had dropped to −62°F by the time the team reached Tolovana, 24 hours later. Shannon himself was hypothermic, with parts of his face turned black with frostbite.  Three of his dogs had died on the way, victims of frostbitten lungs.

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Leonhard Seppala and his team took their turn, departing into gale force winds and zero visibility, with a wind chill of −85°F.  With Seppala’s 8-year old-daughter and only child Sigrid at risk for the disease, the stakes could not have been higher.

Up the 5,000′ “Little McKinley”, Seppala gambled on a shortcut across the unstable ice of Norton Sound.  The howling gale threatened to break up the ice, stranding the team at sea.  Visibility was so poor that Seppala couldn’t see his own “wheel dog” – the dog nearest his sled.  The 19-dog team struggled for traction on the glassy skin of the ocean water, returning to the coastline only hours before the ice broke up.

Much of the time, navigation in that black, frozen wilderness was entirely up to Seppala’s lead dog.  Most sled dogs are retired by age twelve, especially team leaders, but it was twelve-year-old “Togo”, who was trusted with the lead.

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Seppala and Togo ran 170 miles to receive the serum, returning another 91 miles to make the handoff on February 1. Together the pair covered twice as much ground as any other team, over the most dangerous terrain of the “serum run”.

Gunnar Kaasen and his team took the handoff, hitting the trail at 10:00 that night. A massive gust estimated at 80mph upended the sled, pitching musher and serum alike into the snow. Already frostbitten, Kaasen searched in the darkness with bare hands, until he found the cylinder. Covering the last 53 miles overnight, the team reached Front Street, Nome, at 5:30am on February 2. The serum was thawed and ready to use,  by noon.

seppala520 mushers and 150 dogs or more had covered 674 miles in 5 days, 7½ hours, a distance that normally took the mail relay 2-3 weeks. Not a single serum ampule was broken.

With 28 confirmed cases and enough antitoxin for 30, the serum run had held the death toll to no higher than seven.

Doctor Welch suspected as many as 100 or more deaths in the native camps, but the real number will never be known. An untold number of dogs died while completing the run.  Several mushers were severely frostbitten.

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Gunnar Kaasen and Balto

Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog “Balto” were hailed as heroes of the serum run, the dog becoming the most popular canine celebrity in the country, after Rin Tin Tin. There was a nine-month vaudeville tour, and Hollywood produced a 30-minute silent film, “Balto’s Race to Nome,” starring himself in the lead role.

A bronze likeness was erected in New York’s Central Park in 1925, with Balto in attendance.  The statue stands there to this day, though Kaasen’s lead is depicted wearing Togo’s “colors” (awards).

Balto’s fame was a source of considerable bitterness for Leonhard Seppala, who felt that Kaasen’s 53-mile run was nothing compared with his own 261, Kaasen’s lead little more than a “freight dog”.  The statue was particularly galling.  “It was almost more than I could bear” he said, “when the ‘newspaper dog’ Balto received a statue for his ‘glorious achievements’”.

Togo lived another four years though the serum run rendered him lame, never again able to run. The real hero of the serum run spent the last years of his life in Poland Spring, Maine, and passed away at the ripe old age of 16.

Wild Bill Shannon disappeared in 1937, while prospecting for gold.  His bones were discovered four years later, perhaps a victim of exposure, or perhaps yet another “close call”, with a grizzly bear.

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Leonhard Seppala and Togo

Leonhard Seppala was in his old age in 1960, when he recalled his lead dog on the serum run.   “I never had a better dog than Togo. His stamina, loyalty and intelligence could not be improved upon. Togo was the best dog that ever traveled the Alaska trail.”

Today, the memory of the 1925 serum run lives on in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, held every March and run over much of the same terrain as the ‘Great Race of Mercy’.   Togo himself is stuffed and mounted,  standing watch at the Iditarod museum headquarters, in Wasilla, Alaska.

Afterward

Despite the decrepit condition of those three biplanes, pilots and mechanics thought they could have one ready to go, in three days.  The challenge was immense.  Ethylene Glycol wouldn’t be used as an automotive anti-freeze until the following year, and older methods such as Methyl Alcohol wrought havoc on internal engine components.

e16a10c46b80a325b8c6e8e4009c828c“The once tight fabric covering the wings and fuselage was weak from all the rough landings as well as the wind and rain. Dirt and oil caked the engine and prop. Wires for the rudders and elevators hung from the sides of the fuselage.” Even in such disrepair, the pilots and mechanics thought one of the planes could be ready to go Nome in just three days, a flight they thought would take no more than 6-hours”.

If unsuccessful, all would be lost.  Pilot, aircraft and serum.

The decision was a high stakes gamble, falling in the end to Alaska Governor Scott Bone, who decided on the twenty-team relay.  Good thing, too.  Multiple efforts to get one of those aircraft in shape for the second shipment, failed.

The Salisbury cousins Gay and Laney tell the tale in a harrowing account called The Cruelest Miles, if you’re interested in more reading.  I haven’t gotten to mine yet, but it sounds like a good read.

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.

January 4, 1903 Electrocuting an Elephant

In the six years I’ve been writing “Today in History”, I’ve written about 700 of these stories. A father isn’t supposed to have favorites among his “children”, but I have to confess. I do. This is not one of those. This story, I detest.

Thomas Edison didn’t invent the light bulb.  The first platinum filament bulb arrived some forty years earlier. What he did was to make the thing commercially viable, earlier versions being too expensive, and too quick to burn out. Edison went through thousands of materials before discovering the right filament, finally landing on carbonized bamboo leading to his famous quip, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

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Topsy

Half a world away from Edison’s workshop, an elephant was born in the jungles of Southeast Asia, captured by elephant traders and smuggled into the United States.

Adam John Forepaugh, owner of the Forepaugh Circus, bought the animal and named her “Topsy”, after a slave girl from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Circuses of the era were known for sleazy business practices. Adam Forepaugh was at home in this environment. The Forepaugh circus claimed Topsy was the first elephant born in America, a hoax publicly exposed when the elephant trader who sold the animal, tipped off arch-rival circus operator, P.T. Barnum.

Edison opened his first electrical power plant in 1882, in New York city. Two years later, a young Serbian immigrated to America, and went to work for Edison. His name was Nikola Tesla. Tesla was himself a brilliant inventor and helped his boss improve his Direct-Current generators, while simultaneously developing a different method of electrical distribution: Alternating Current.

Tesla tried to convince Edison the future belonged to AC, but the “Wizard of Menlo Park” was adamant. AC had no future he claimed, Edison would not budge. Tesla quit his job in 1885 and applied for several patents for his work in AC technology. In 1888, he sold his patents to industrialist George Westinghouse, and the Westinghouse Electric Company. The “War of the Currents” had begun.

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Edison’s first bulb

Topsy grew to be 10-feet tall and twenty-feet long, and worked for the circus for 27 years.  She gained a reputation for being a “bad” elephant, but it’s hard to separate circus hype, from reality.  Newspapers of course, were happy to play along.   These were the days of Yellow Journalism, and circulation wars were red hot.  Newsies hawked lurid headlines, on the streets. Anything to sell papers – extra extra, read all about it.

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Topsy was supposed to have killed twelve men by 1900.  More common accounts claim she had killed two Forepaugh & Sells Brothers’ Circus workers: one in Paris, Texas and one in Waco.  Journalist Michael Daly wrote in 2013 there is no record of anyone killed by an elephant in Waco.  The handler attacked in Paris received injuries, but there is no record of his being killed.

No matter, the story sold papers.  It was great for attendance too.  People crowded into the circus to see the “man-killing elephant”.

Topsy and the other elephants were being unloaded from a train in June 1902, when one Louis Dodero thought he’d”tickle” her, behind the ear. Topsy seized him around the waist and lifted him high, before hurling him to the ground. It could have been worse but a handler stepped in and savaged her, with a fork.

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An illustration of Topsy from the St. Paul Globe on June 16, 1902. H/T Smithsonian.com

Meanwhile, Edison felt threatened by the rise of AC, which could be distributed over long distances far more cheaply, that DC.  Edison launched a propaganda campaign, publicly executing several dogs and even a horse, to demonstrate the dangers of AC.

When New York came looking for a more humane way to execute the condemned, the one-time opponent of capital punishment recommended an electric chair. In 1890, convicted murder William Kimmler was the first person to die in an electric chair, the apparatus powered by a Westinghouse AC generator designed by a salesman secretly on Edison’s payroll.

Despite such propaganda, Tesla’s low-cost alternative won out. Westinghouse won the contract to power the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, and the all-important generators, at Niagara Falls. The War of the Currents was over by 1896. AC has remained dominant in the power industry, to this day.

the current war

In March 1902, one James Fielding Blount entered the elephant’s tent, possibly drunk.  Accounts vary as to what happened next.  The common story is that Blount began teasing the animals each in turn, offering the elephants a bottle of whiskey. He reportedly threw sand in Topsy’s face and then burned the tip of her trunk with a cigar.  Topsy hurled the fool to the ground and crushed the life out of him

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Being led to the place of execution

Forepaugh sold their “bad” elephant in June, when she was added to the animal menagerie at Coney Island’s Sea Lion Park. William “Whitey” Alt, Topsy’s handler, came along.

A bad summer season and heavy competition convinced owner Paul Boynton to get out of the business. New owners Frederick Thompson and Elmer Dundy decided to expand the park, and Topsy was put to work moving timbers and heavy equipment.

Newspapers and publicity shots characterized the work as “penance” for Topsy’s rampaging ways.

Meanwhile Alt, an habitual drunk and the only person who could handle her (albeit brutally), stabbed Topsy with a pitchfork and then set her loose to run free in the streets. The episode led to Alt’s arrest as did another, in which the drunk handler rode the elephant through the streets of Coney Island and into a local police station, causing the officers to dive for the cells for protection.

Alt was fired after that episode, and the owners claimed they had no way of handling the park’s elephant.  Thompson and Dundy tried to give her away without success, before hitting on an idea.  They would execute their problem elephant by hanging, and charge admission to witness the spectacle.

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President of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals John Peter Haines got wind of the plan, and objected to the “needlessly cruel” means of execution. Weeks of negotiations ensued, in which the owners offered to give Topsy to the SPCA, before settling on an “all of the above” means of execution including poison, strangulation by means of ropes tied to a steam powered winch, and electrocution.

The execution was carried out on August 4, 1903 and recorded by an Edison film crew, one of many “actuality” films produced by the Edison Mfg. Co. from 1897, on.  The short film “Executing an Elephant” runs for 74 seconds. You can find it on Youtube if you are so inclined. I don’t want to see it again.

In the following years, Thomas Edison was blamed for staging the spectacle, to discredit his rival. The story is repeated from that day to this, but it’s a myth.

Edison lost his battle to supply the world’s electricity, years before. There’s no evidence he was even there on the date of execution, and his written correspondence contains no mention of it.  This then, is the story of an innocent animal, caught between ignorance and a changing business climate.  I do not think I could hate this story, more.