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.

 

 

December 30, 1951 Chief Dog Sinbad, USCG

Sinbad’s breed was best described as “liberty-rum-chow-hound, with a bit of Bulldog, Doberman, Pinscher, and what-not. Mostly what-not”- Martin Sheridan Life Magazine, December 1943.

In times of peace, the United States Coast Guard is charged with protecting the security of the nation’s borders, maritime law enforcement and rescue operations. One of seven uniformed military service branches, Coast Guard operations may be expanded in time of conflict, or by order of the Commander-in-Chief.

During WW2, the Coast Guard operated hundreds of vessels from patrol frigates to troop ships, performing convoy escort, anti-submarine and replenishment operations. Many of the landing craft used in amphibious operations were operated by Coast Guardsmen. There may be no group in the employ of the United States government, better qualified to navigate the shoals, surf and strong currents encountered by small boats, in shallow water.

Semper Paratus. Always Ready.

Sinbad_pawprint-517x640In the winter of 1937, the Coast Guard cutter USCGC George W. Campell steamed out of New York harbor, patrolling the east coast with a mission of life-saving and national defense. The night before, Chief Boatswain’s Mate A. A. “Blackie” Roth (the name is also given as “Rother”) had given his girlfriend, a puppy. She couldn’t keep him, the landlord wouldn’t allow it. No other crewman could take the small dog. It was either leave him astray and hope for the best, or smuggle the puppy on board.

The Captain addressed the assembled crew on the first day of the cruise. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall, when one of them, barked back.

They called him “Sinbad”, and gave him a uniform, a service record and a rank.  Dog, 1st class.

Sinbad quickly learned ship’s routine, and often “racked” with other sailors.  He could always be found near the galley knowing that’s where the food comes from, and he loved himself a cup of black coffee.

Sinbad_2Sinbad’s favorite toys were the large metal washers which he’d hide, until someone came to play with him.  They even built him a hammock, much more comfy to sleep in, in those long Atlantic swells.

Sinbad was possessed of the best qualities of the sailor and of his own kind, and of the worst.  In 1940, he nearly set off an international incident.

With the dark clouds of WW2 already over Europe, Denmark was overrun and occupied, by Nazis.  Greenland was once a Danish territory, and the allies hoped to keep the place out of German hands.  Campbell was sent to secure diplomatic ties with the Danes and the Greenlanders, who lived there.

Greenland is thinly populated, a place where locals mainly fish and raise sheep, for a living.  On shore for a week, Sinbad was quick to discover the pastures and the great fun of chasing sheep.  The sheep themselves were not amused and some died of exhaustion. Others became too nervous to go out and eat.  The owners weren’t amused either, and one demanded that Sinbad be shot.

The captain thought that too severe a punishment and Sinbad was banished, never to set foot on Greenland, again.  There was no end of amusement among the crew of the Campbell, that Sinbad had been brought before a Captain’s mast. It would not be his last.

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Sinbad was awarded the American Defense Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle-Eastern Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal and Navy Occupation Service Medal, which he wore, attached to his collar.

When war came, the cutter was transferred to the Navy, and the patrols became longer.

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“Sinbad’s statue in Campbell’s mess hall watching over the ship. Captain James Hirschfield believed the WWII Campbell would survive after being disabled in combat so long as Sinbad stayed aboard”.

In the winter of 1943, Campbell was assigned to convoy protection, defending the vital north Atlantic supply route from roving “wolf packs” of German submarines.  Sinbad never did get used to the sound of gunfire or depth charges, and would hide below decks, his paws over his ears.  On February 22, the German submarine U-606 unleashed a barrage of torpedoes, against an allied convoy.

A day-long game of cat & mouse ensued in which the sub would pop up for another attack, only to be swarmed and driven into yet another crash dive.  A periscope was spotted at 7:26 pm and Campbell charged in with a string of depth charges, colliding with the sub at the end of the run.  U-606 was destroyed and Campbell badly damaged, disabled and without power, due to flooding.

All but “essential personnel” were evacuated  Captain James Hirschfield felt that Sinbad was good luck.  No harm could befall the cutter while he was on board, and so he remained, essential personnel, taken under tow for repairs by the Polish destroyer, Burza.  Sinbad had remained on deck with “his boys”, throughout the action.

Sinbad’s breed was best described as “liberty-rum-chow-hound, with a bit of Bulldog, Doberman, Pinscher, and what-not. Mostly what-not”- Martin Sheridan Life Magazine, December 1943.

Sinbad was promoted in 1943 to the rank of K9C, “Chief Dog” – equivalent to Chief Petty Officer – the second of only two dogs to be classified as non-commissioned officers.  Since that time, ‘regulations’ have transformed all subsequent animals into “property” rather than personnel.

Fun fact:  The first was Sergeant Stubby, the Staffordshire Terrier who was smuggled “over there” during the Great War, and once caught a German spy by the arse while he was prowling about allied trenches.

Campbell served the duration of WW2, with Sinbad on board, the entire time.  In 1948, he was ready to retire.  Sinbad had been at sea for eleven years.   He was finally ready for shore detail.

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After eleven years at sea, Sinbad was “retired” to enjoy the comfortable life of a mascot, at the Barnegat shore station.,

The assembled media and photographers were too much that day, and Sinbad bolted across the gang plank, and down the dock.  To be AWOL from a United States Coast Guard cutter is a serious offense, and Sinbad was busted in rank, back to Dog, 1st class.  He was probably just as happy to be back with the enlisted guys.

Sinbad was transferred to the Barnegat Light Small Boat Station in New Jersey, where he served as station mascot for the duration of his military career.

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Sinbad is welcomed aboard by the crew of the Barnegat light station

Chief Dog Sinbad served all of his fourteen years with the United States Coast Guard.  He passed away on this day in 1951 at the Barnegat light station and is buried there, at the base of the flagpole.  A sailor always, Sinbad could drink with the best of them, and always enjoyed that cuppa black coffee.  Irrespective of his latest rank, he was many years, a media celebrity.  Life magazine may have said it best:  “An Old Sea Dog Has Favorite Bars and Plenty of Girls in Every Port.”

Throughout her 46 years of service, USCGC Campbell was referred to as “The Queen of the Seas”.  She was sunk as a training target in November 1984, a single harpoon missile leaving her nearly intact, as she went out of sight.  The final radio message, broadcast as she disappeared beneath the waves:  The Queen is dead.  Long live the Queen.

Today, the USCGC Campbell (WMEC-909) patrols the east coast out of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, the sixth Coast Guard Cutter to bear the name.

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

December 23, 1884 Lake Bacon

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

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

Wait…What?

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Water Hyacinth

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

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

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

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

Eichhornia_crassipes_field_at_Langkawi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hippo Steak

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

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

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

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Gulf of Mexico dead zone, image credit NOAA

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

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

 

 

December 18, 1943 Bat Bomb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Carlsbad AAF Fire, following Bat Bomb Accident

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

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

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

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

BatHouse

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

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

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December 10, 1986 The Dogs of Chernobyl

The devastating Chernobyl Prayer tells the story of: “dogs howling, trying to get on the buses. Mongrels, Alsatians. The soldiers were pushing them out again, kicking them. They ran after the buses for ages.” Heartbroken families pinned notes to their doors: “Don’t kill our Zhulka. She’s a good dog.”

Chernobyl_burning-aerial_view_of_coreThe accident began as a test, a carefully planned series of events, intending to simulate a station blackout at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine.

This most titanic of disasters, began with a series of smaller mishaps. Safety systems intentionally turned off, reactor operators failing to follow checklists, inherent design flaws in the reactor itself.

Over the night of April 25-26, 1986, a nuclear fission chain reaction expanded beyond control at reactor #4, flashing water to super-heated steam resulting in a violent explosion and open air graphite fire. Massive amounts of nuclear material were expelled into the atmosphere during this explosive phase, equaled only by that released over the following nine days by intense updrafts created by the fire.  Radioactive material rained down over large swaths of the western USSR and Europe, some 60% in the Republic of Belarus.

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A plastic doll lies abandoned on a rusting bed, 30 years after the town was evacuated following the Chernobyl disaster. H/T Dailymail.com

It was the most disastrous nuclear power plant accident in history and one of only two such accidents classified as a level 7, the maximum classification on the International Nuclear Event Scale.  The other was the 2011 tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor, in Japan.

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Hat tip, Chernobyl Museum, Kiev , Ukraine

One operator died in the steam-blast phase of the accident, a second resulting from a catastrophic dose of radiation.  600 Soviet helicopter pilots risked lethal radiation, dropping 5,000 metric tons of lead, sand and boric acid in the effort to seal off the spread.

Remote controlled, robot bulldozers and carts, soon proved useless. Valery Legasov of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy in Moscow, explains: “[W]e learned that robots are not the great remedy for everything. Where there was very high radiation, the robot ceased to be a robot—the electronics quit working.”

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Chernobyl “Liquidators”, permitted to spend no more than a one-time maximum of forty seconds, cleaning the rooftops of surrounding structures.

Soldiers in heavy protective gear shoveled the most highly radioactive materials, “bio-robots” allowed to spend a one-time maximum of only forty seconds on the rooftops of surrounding buildings. Even so, some of these “Liquidators” report having done so, five or six times.

In the aftermath, 237 suffered from Acute Radiation Sickness (ARS), 31 of whom died in the following three months.  Fourteen more died of radiation induced cancers, over the following ten years.

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Photo by Chernobyl Exclusion Zone Authority

The death toll could have been far higher, but for the heroism of first responders.  Anatoli Zakharov, a fireman stationed in Chernobyl since 1980, replied to remarks that firefighters believed this to be an ordinary electrical fire.  “Of course we knew! If we’d followed regulations, we would never have gone near the reactor. But it was a moral obligation – our duty. We were like kamikaze“.

The concrete sarcophagus designed and built to contain the wreckage has been called the largest civil engineering project in history, involving no fewer than a quarter-million construction workers, every one of whom received a lifetime maximum dose of radiation.  By December 10, the structure was nearing completion. The #3 reactor at Chernobyl continued to produce electricity, until 2000.

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Evacuation of Pripyat

Officials of the top-down Soviet state first downplayed the disaster.  Asked by one Ukrainian official, “How are the people?“, acting minister of Internal Affairs Vasyl Durdynets replied that there was nothing to be concerned about: “Some are celebrating a wedding, others are gardening, and others are fishing in the Pripyat River.

As the scale of the disaster became apparent, civilians were at first ordered to shelter in place.  A 10-km exclusion zone was enacted within the first 36 hours, resulting in the hurried evacuation of some 49,000.  The exclusion zone was tripled to 30-km within a week, leading to the evacuation of 68,000 more.  Before it was over, some 350,000 were moved away, never to return.

The chaos of these evacuations, can scarcely be imagined.  Confused adults.  Crying children.  Howling dogs.  Shouting soldiers, barking orders and herding the now-homeless onto waiting buses, by the tens of thousands.  Dogs and cats, beloved companion animals, were ordered left behind.  Evacuees were never told.  There would be no return. 

Abandoned amusement park
Two bumper cars lie face to face in the rusting remains of an amusement park in the abandoned town of Pripyat near Chernobyl

There were countless and heartbreaking scenes of final abandonment, of mewling cats, and whimpering dogs.  Belorussian writer Svetlana Alexievich compiled hundreds of interviews into a single monologue, an oral history of the forgotten.  The devastating Chernobyl Prayer tells the story of: “dogs howling, trying to get on the buses. Mongrels, Alsatians. The soldiers were pushing them out again, kicking them. They ran after the buses for ages.” Heartbroken families pinned notes to their doors: “Don’t kill our Zhulka. She’s a good dog.”

homeless wild dog in Pripyat

There would be no mercy.  Squads of soldiers were sent to shoot those animals, left behind.  Most died.  Some escaped discovery, and survived.

Abandoned gym
View from an abandoned gym in the Prypyat ghost town, of Chernobyl. H/T Vintagenews.com

Today, untold numbers of stray dogs live in the towns of Chernobyl, Pripyat and surrounding villages, descendants of those left behind, back in 1986.  Ill equipped to survive in the wild and driven from the forests by wolves and other predators, they forage as best they can among abandoned streets and buildings, of the 1,000-mile exclusion zone.  Often, increased radiation levels can be found in their fur.  Few live beyond the age of six but, all is not bleak.

Since September 2017, a partnership between the SPCA International and the US-based 501(c)(3) non-profit CleanFutures.org has worked to provide for the veterinary needs of these defenseless creatures.  Over 450 animals have been tested for radiation exposure, given medical care, vaccinations, and spayed or neutered, to bring populations within manageable limits.  Many have been socialized for human interaction and successfully decontaminated, available for adoption into homes in Ukraine and North America, since July.

The work of rescue is ongoing, anticipated to take at least eighteen months.  A joint press release from the two organizations gives much-needed hope:  “This unprecedented event marks an important partnership with the Ukrainian government, which has been reluctant in the past 32 years to allow anything to be removed from the nuclear exclusion zone.”

The goal is to find homes for as many as 200, of the abandoned dogs of Chernobyl.

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

November 15, 1873 The Heart of a Dog

When it comes to loyalty, there is nothing to beat the heart of a dog.

The first dog may have approached some campfire, looking for a morsel.  Maybe someone took in a sick or injured pup. A wolf pack could have learned to shadow human hunting parties, and the two groups learned to work together for their mutual benefit. The facts surrounding the domestication of that first dog some fifteen thousand years ago, are lost to history.  But one thing is certain. When it comes to loyalty, there is nothing to beat the heart of a dog.

Miguel Guzmán of Cordoba Argentina, died in 2006. The following day Capitán, the family’s German Shepherd, disappeared. Mrs. Guzmán and the couple’s son launched a day-long search, until the dog arrived at the cemetery, some forty-five minutes, away. No one knows how he got there. The family claims they never brought him. Cemetery director Hector Baccega remembers when he first saw the dog: ‘He turned up here one day, all on his own, and started wandering all around the cemetery until he eventually found the tomb of his master”.

Capitán was taken home but he was back, the following day. Baccega describes what has since become, routine: “During the day he sometimes has a walk around the cemetery, but always rushes back to the grave. And every day, at six o’clock sharp, he lies down on top of the grave stays there all night”.

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Capitan. H/T Guardian, for this image

Capitán lived to fifteen or sixteen, old for a large breed, and died this February, in the cemetery in which he had lived. In the end he was crippled and blind, when he went to join his “Dad”.  Who knows, I certainly don’t:  maybe they are together again.

200365253-114256-400“Greyfriar’s Bobby” was a Skye Terrier in 19th-century Edinburgh, who waited 14 years by the grave of his owner, Police nightwatchman, John Gray.  There he died in 1872 and was buried in the Greyfriars Kirkyard, not far from where his master lay.

Artist William Brodie created a life-sized likeness atop the Greyfriars Bobby Fountain in Edinburgh,  paid for by a local aristocrat, Baroness Burdett-Coutts and dedicated on this day, in 1873

Hachikō, an Akita known to Japanese children as chūken Hachikō (“faithful dog Hachikō”), used to tag along with his owner Hidesaburō Ueno, a professor of agriculture at Tokyo University. Ueno would commute to work and every evening, Hachikō would wait at the Shibuya Station, for the professor’s return. Hidesaburō stopped coming home in May 1925, when a cerebral hemorrhage took him away, while delivering a lecture. Every day for nine years, nine months and fifteen days, the golden colored Akita appeared at Shibuya Station, precisely in time for that evening train.

Feeling Ruswarp StatueRuswarp was a fourteen-year old Border Collie who went hiking with Graham Nuttall on January 20, 1990 in the Welsh Mountains, near Llandrindod. On April 7, a hiker discovered Nuttall’s body near a mountain stream, where the dog had been standing guard for eleven weeks.  Ruswarp was so weak he had to be carried off the mountain, and died shortly after.  Today, there is a statue in his memory, on a platform near the Garsdale railway station.

In the early morning hours of August 6, 2011, Thirty American military service personnel including 22 US Navy SEALs were killed along with eight Afghans, SEAL Team 6 handler John “Jet Li” Douangdara and his Military Working Dog (MWD) “Bart”, when their Chinook helicopter was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade in the Kunar Province, of Afghanistan.

To anyone around at that time, those images of “Hawkeye”, together for the last time with slain Navy SEAL Jon Tumilson,  are hard to forget.

Hawkeye-and-Tumilson

“Shep” belonged to an unknown sheep herder near Fort Benton, in Montana. In 1936, the man fell ill, and was taken to a local hospital.

For over a week, Shep waited at the hospital, for his master to return. On the 11th day the man died, his casket taken to the local train station and placed in the cargo hold, to be returned home for burial.

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Shep

Shep was there throughout and watched the train chug away with the body of his “Dad”. He’d return to that hospital door where a kindly nun would feed him a scrap, but every time he heard that train whistle, there was a sheepdog waiting at the station.

In those days, there were four trains a day. For nearly six years, Shep returned to the station, every time he heard that whistle. He even dug a den for himself, near the track.

Passengers took the Havre to Great Falls rail line just to see the dog. Shep received so much fan mail, the Great Northern Railroad assigned a secretary to help pen responses.

In time, the dog wasn’t quite so fast as he used to be, his hearing not so good.  On January 12, 1942, “Forever Faithful” Shep was struck and killed on the tracks, waiting for a man who could never return.

Stories such as these are enough to fill a book, if not  library.  I see a bumper sticker sometimes, in traffic.  I’m not a big one for those things but, if I were.  This would be my first:  “Lord, make me half the man my dog thinks I am“.

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.