September 20, 1066 Fulford Gate

How different were those last thousand years, but for this one day’s outcome, at a place called Fulford Gate.

Edward the Confessor, King of England, went into a coma in December 1065, having expressed no clear preference for a successor. Edward died on January 5 after briefly regaining consciousness, and commending his wife and kingdom to the protection of Harold, second son of Godwin, the powerful Earl of Wessex, and Gytha Thorkelsdóttir.

The Anglo-Saxon Kings didn’t normally pick their own successors, but their wishes carried import. Nobles of the Witenagemot, the early Anglo-Saxon predecessor to the modern parliament, were in Westminster to observe the Feast of the Epiphany. Convening the following day, the council elected Harold Godwinson, crowning him King Harold II on January 6.

For some, Harold’s quick ascension was a matter of administrative convenience and good fortune, that everyone just happened to be at the right place, at the right time. Others saw shades of conspiracy.  A brazen usurpation of the throne.  Edward’s death touched off a succession crisis which would change the course of history.

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H/T By Amitchell125 at English Wikipedia

Harold’s younger brother Tostig, third son of Godwin, was himself a powerful Earl of Northumbria, and thoroughly detested by his fellow northern Earls.  Tostig was deposed and outlawed by King Edward in October 1065, with support from much of the local ruling class as well as that of Tostig’s own brother, Harold.

King Edward’s death a short two months later, left the exile believing he had his own claim to the throne. Tostig’s ambition and animosity for his brother, would prove fatal to them both.

After a series of inconclusive springtime raids, Tostig went to a Norman Duke called William “The Bastard”, looking for military support. William had his own claim to the English throne, and had already declared his intention to take it. The Norman Duke had little use for King Harold’s younger brother, so Tostig sought the assistance of King Harald of Norway, also known as Harald Hardrada (“harðráði” in the Old Norse), the name translating as”hard ruler”.

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Harald Hardrada. The Last Great Viking

Tostig sailed for England with King Harald and a mighty force of some 10,000 Viking warriors, arriving in September, 1066.  Six thousand were deployed on September 20, to meet 5,000 defenders on the outskirts of the village of Fulford, near the city of York.  Leading the defenders were those same two brothers, Edwin of Mercia, and Morcar of Northumbria.

The Anglo-Saxons were first to strike, advancing on a weaker section of the Norwegian line and driving Harald’s vikings into a marsh.  With fresh invaders hurrying to the scene, the tide turned as the English charge found itself cut off and under attack, wedged between the soft ground of the marsh and the banks of an adjoining river. The encounter at Fulford Gate was a comprehensive defeat for the English side.  It was over in an hour.  On this day in 1066, two of the seven Great Kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, were decimated.

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Perhaps not wanting to have his capital city looted, Tostig agreed to take a number of hostages, and retired seven miles south to Stamford Bridge to await formal capitulation.  Harald went along with the plan, believing he had nothing further to fear from the English.

Meanwhile, King Harold awaited with an army in the south, anticipating William’s invasion from Normandy.  Hearing of the events at Fulford, Harold marched his army north, traveling day and night and covering 190 miles in four days, on foot, completely surprising the Viking force waiting at Stamford Bridge.

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The new Stamford Bridge over the River Derwent, built in 1727

Believing they had come to accept submission, the Norwegians must have looked at the horizon and wondered, how a peace party could raise that much dust.  This was no peace party.  With their forces spread out and separated on opposite sides of the River Derwent, Harald Hardrada and his ally Tostig now faced a new army.

At the height of the battle, one Berserker stood alone at the top of Stamford Bridge, wielding the great two-handed Dane Axe.  Alone and surrounded, this giant of a man slew something like 40 English soldiers when one of Harold’s soldiers floated himself under the bridge, spearing the Viking warrior from below.

Stamford Bridge

The savagery of the battle at Stamford Bridge, can only be imagined. Before the age of industrialized warfare, every injury was personally administered with sword, axe or mace.  Before it was over 5,000 of King Harold’s soldiers lay  dead, about a third of his entire force. Two-thirds of King Harald’s Vikings died at Stamford Bridge, about 6,000 including Harald himself and the would-be King, Tostig Godwinson.

So many died in that small area that, 50 years later, the site was said to have been white with the sun bleached bones of the slain.  Of 300 ships arriving that September, the battered remnants of Harald’s Viking army needed only 24, to sail away.

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Stamford Bridge is often described as the end of the Viking invasions of England, but that isn’t quite so. There would be others, but none so powerful as this.  The Last of the Great Vikings, was dead.

The Norman landing King Harold had been waiting, for took place three days later at Pevensey Harbor, just as his battered army was disbanding and heading home for the Fall harvest. The Anglo Saxon army would march yet again, meeting the Norman invader on October 14 near the East Sussex town of Hastings.  King Harold II was killed that day, with an arrow to his eye.  He was the Last of the Anglo Saxon Kings.

Twenty years later, William “The Conqueror” would commission the comprehensive inventory of his new Kingdom, the “Domesday Book“.

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Alternate histories are fraught with peril.  It’s hard to tell the story of events, which never occurred. Even so, I have to wonder.  Some of the best men in the England of 1066 were killed under King Harold‘s banner, in the clash at Stamford Bridge. Surely every last man among them faced some degree of exhaustion to say nothing of wounds, the day they faced Duke William’s Norman force on that Hastings hillside.

Those who survived Stamford Bridge performed a round-trip march of some 380-miles, in the three weeks since Fulford.

Those three weeks in 1066 altered the next 1,000 years of British history and with it, her former colonies in America.  How different were those last thousand years, but for this one day’s outcome, at a place called Fulford Gate.

Feature image, top of page”  One scene from the Bayeux Tapestry.   At 20-inches tall and nearly 230-feet long, the 11th-century textile tells the story of the Norman conquest of England, in 1066. 

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.
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September 6, 1939 Battle of Barking Creek

There is a time when every hero, is as green as the grass.

The Nazi conquest of Europe began with the Sudetenland in 1938, the border districts of Bohemia, Moravia, and German speaking parts of Czechoslovakia. Within two years, every major power on the European mainland was either neutral, or under Nazi occupation.

Ground forces of the United Kingdom were shattered in 1940, along with those of her French, Indian, Moroccan, Polish, Belgian, Canadian and Dutch allies.  The hastily assembled fleet of 933 vessels large and small were all that stood before unmitigated disaster.

338,226 soldiers were rescued from the beaches of France.  Defeated but still unbeaten, these would live to fight another day.

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In 1940, the island nation of Great Britain stood alone and unconquered, defiant in the face of the Nazi war machine.  In Germany, street decorations were being prepared for the victory parades which were sure to follow, as Adolf Hitler considered plans for his surprise attack on his ally to the East, the Soviet Union.

After the allied armies were hurled from the beaches of Dunkirk, Hitler seemed to feel he had little to do but “mop up”.  Prime Minister Winston Churchill captured the spirit of the period as only he could, when he said that “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”.

The “so few” to whom the Prime Minister referred, were the 2,342 British aircrew of the Royal Air Force (RAF), and the 595 international air crews who were her allies, in the “Battle of Britain“.

freeborn2_1715769cJohn Connell Freeborn was a pilot with the RAF, and a good one, too. Credited with 13½ enemy aircraft shot down, Freeborn flew more operational hours during the Battle of Britain, than any other pilot, ending the war with a Distinguished Flying Cross and  Bar, and completing his RAF career as a Wing Commander.  Yet, there is a time when every hero is as green as the grass.  In the beginning, John Freeborn like everyone else, were rank amateurs.

On the third day of the war, September 6, 1939, air combat experience was precisely, zero.  Very few had so much as seen a German aircraft, when a squadron of Mk IIB Hawker Hurricane fighters took off from North Weald Air Base after an early morning air raid alert. Two reserve Hurricanes left shortly afterward, piloted by Montague Hulton-Harrop and Frank Rose.

Something went wrong, and the two reserves were identified as enemy aircraft. Three Spitfires from Hornchurch, Essex were ordered to attack. Commanding officer of the flight, Adolph “Sailor” Malan, gave the order to engage.  Flying Officer Vincent ‘Paddy’ Byrne opened fire on Rose’s aircraft, as Pilot Officer John Freeborn attacked Hulton-Harrop.

Both aircraft were shot down. Rose survived, but Hulton-Harrop was dead before he hit the ground, shot through the back of his head. He was the first RAF pilot to die in the second World War. In another unfortunate first, this was the first time any aircraft had been shot down by a Spitfire.

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At the ensuing court martial, Malan testified for the prosecution, against his own pilots. He claimed that Freeborn had been irresponsible, impetuous, and had not taken heed of vital communications. As for Freeborn himself, his attorney, Sir Patrick Hastings, called Malan a “bare-faced liar”.

As an interesting aside, Hastings’ co-counsel for the defense was Roger Bushell, who was later incarcerated with Paddy Byrne at Stalag Luft III.  Roger “Big X”Bushell became the mastermind of the “Great Escape“, in which he and seventy-five other allied prisoners escaped Stalag Luft III via three tunnels, dubbed “Tom”, “Dick” and “Harry”.  Bushell was caught along with Bernard Scheidhauer, while waiting for a train at the Saarbrücken railway station, and murdered by members of the Gestapo.  Only three of the 76, escaped to freedom.

The court exonerated both Spitfire pilots, ruling the case to be an unfortunate accident.

RAFHurricaneRichard Hough and Denis Richards wrote about the episode in The Battle of Britain: The Greatest Air Battle of World War II, saying “This tragic shambles, hushed up at the time, was dubbed in the RAF ‘the Battle of Barking Creek’ – a place several miles from the shooting-down but one which, like Wigan Pier, was a standing joke in the music halls.”

The “Wigan pier” joke has to do with an inland industrial town, as if such a place could possess a pier, like some seaside pleasure resort.

Many years later, Freeborn spoke of the first RAF pilot to die in WW2, the man he himself had killed in a “friendly fire” incident. “I think about him nearly every day”, he said. “I’ve had a good life, and he should have had a good life too”.

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September 1, 911 We Are Not Amused

In that moment, the personal dignity of the King of France, ceased to exist. The Duchy of Normandy, was born.

VictoriaA story comes down to us from the Royal Residence of Queen Victoria, of the hapless attendant who told a spicy story one night, at dinner.  You could have watched the icicles grow, when the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland turned and said: “We are not amused“.

The story may be little more than a tale told “out of school”, no better than “a guy told me at the pub…”  Despite the ‘pluralis majestatis’, the ‘Royal We’,  Vicky herself is said to have been an enjoyable companion if not exactly a zany funster. At least in private.

The “Grandmother of Europe” was never given to public displays of mirth. Her lighter side would forever remain, Victoria’s secret.  Yet for the rest of us, some of the Royals of history have been very amusing, indeed.

Roman Emperor Caligula (“Little Boots“), so-called for the tiny soldier’s boots, the Caligae, the boy liked to wear on campaign with his father,  famously appointed his horse Incitatus, Consul of Rome.  At least he planned to.   Elagabalus ranked his Imperial cabinet according to the size of his officer’s ummm…well, never mind that.  Charles VI, “the Beloved and the Mad”, King of France from 1380 to 1422, would sit motionless for hours on-end, thinking himself made of glass.

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Caligae

Russian Emperor Peter III was married to the formidable Catherine the Great, though all that greatness seems not to have rubbed off on ol’ Pete.  Given as he was to playing with toy soldiers in bed, it’s uncertain whether the Royal Marriage, was ever consummated. A mean drunk and a child in a man’s body, one story contends that Peter held a full court martial followed by a hanging on a tiny gallows of his own construction, for the rat who chewed off the head of one of his precious toy soldiers.

Some contend that the infamous Jack the Ripper, was a member of the Royal family.

The warlike men who sailed their longboats out of the north tormented the coastal United Kingdom and northwestern Europe, since their first appearance at Lindisfarne Monastery in 793.

Lindisfarne Castle Holy Island
Lindisfarne Castle

These “Norsemen”, or “Normans” attacked Paris in early 911. By July they were holding the nearby town of Chartres, under siege. Normans had burned the place to the ground back in 858 and would probably have done so again, but for their defeat at the battle of Chartres, on July 20.

Even in defeat, these men of the North presented a formidable threat. The Frankish King approached them with a solution.

Rollo the Walker
Rollo “The Walker”

King Charles III, known as “Charles the Simple” after his plain, straightforward ways, proposed to give the Normans the region from the English Channel to the river Seine. It would be the Duchy of Normandy, some of the finest farmlands in northwest Europe, and it would be theirs in exchange for an oath of personal loyalty, to Charles himself.

The deal made sense for the King, since he had already bankrupted his treasury, paying these people tribute. And what better way to deal with future Viking raids down the coast, than to make them the Vikings’ own problem?

So it was that the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte was concluded on this day in 911, when the Viking Chieftain Rollo pledged feudal allegiance to the King of Western Francia.

Rollo was called “The Walker”, because the man was so huge that no horse could carry him. He must have been some scary character with a two-handed battle axe.

At some point in the proceedings, the Viking chieftain was expected to stoop down and kiss the king’s foot, in token of obeisance. Rollo recognized the symbolic importance of the gesture, but wasn’t about to submit to such degradation, himself.

Rollo motioned to one of his lieutenants, a man almost as enormous as himself, to kiss the foot of the King.  The man shrugged, reached down and lifted King Charles off the ground by his ankle. He kissed the foot, and then tossed the King of the Franks aside.  Like a sack of potatoes.

Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte

In that moment, the personal dignity of the King of France, ceased to exist. The Duchy of Normandy, was born.

Richard III reigned as King of England from 1483 until his death on August 22, 1485, at the Battle of Bosworth Field. After the battle, the last Plantagenet King was thrown in some anonymous hole in the ground, and forgotten.

For five centuries, Richard’s body was believed to have been thrown into the River soar. In 2012, Richard’s remains were discovered under a parking lot, once occupied by Greyfriars Priory Church.

Mitochondrial DNA, that passed from mother to child, demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt that the body was that of King Richard III, the last King of the House of York.

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Mitochondrial DNA

But, there was a problem.

The Y-chromosome haplotypes, those passed through the male line, didn’t match the living descendants of the King. The conclusion was inescapable. Somewhere along the Royal line, the chain of paternal DNA was broken. The proverbial “Mailman” had, er, inserted himself, into the family tree.

If true, that de-legitimizes John’s son Henry IV and everyone descended from him, down to the ruling house of Windsor.  Had such a break taken place in more modern times, the paternity of only a few minor Dukes, would be affected.

Professor Kevin Schurer of the University of Leicester, warned: “The first thing we need to get out of the way is that we are not indicating that Her Majesty should not be on the throne. There are 19 links where the chain could have been broken so it is statistically more probable that it happened at a time where it didn’t matter. However, there are parts of the chain which, if broken, could hypothetically affect royalty.”

Without exhuming a whole lot of bodies, there’s no knowing who the illegitimate child was, along those five-hundred years of “Royalty”. Nineteen links in the chain. Suspicion centers on John of Gaunt (1340 – 1399), the alleged son of Edward III, but whose Real father, may have been a Flemish butcher.

I’m not a betting man but if I were, my money’s on those old guys, staying in the ground.

Feature image, top of page:  King Charles VI of France, “the Beloved and the Mad”, by Gillot Saint-Evre

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August 30, 1776 A Damn Close-Run Thing

The silent evacuation over the night of August 29-30 had averted disaster, a feat made possible only through the nautical skills of the merchants and rum traders, the sailors and the fishermen of Colonel John Glover’s Marblehead, Massachusetts militia, the “Amphibious Regiment”.

When General George Washington raised his sword under the branches of that ancient elm on Cambridge commons, by that act did he take command of an “army”, equipped with with an average of only nine rounds per man.

116037-040507-01.tif1776 started out well for the cause of American independence, when the twenty-six-year-old bookseller Henry Knox emerged from a six week slog through a New England winter, at the head of a “Noble train of artillery’.

Manhandled all the way from the frozen wilderness of upstate New York, the guns of Fort Ticonderoga were wrestled to the top of Dorchester Heights, overlooking the British fleet anchored in Boston Harbor.

General sir William Howe faced the prospect of another Bunker Hill.   A British victory, yes, but one which came at a cost that  Howe could ill afford to pay again.

The eleven-month siege of Boston came to an end on March 17 when that fleet evacuated Boston Harbor, and removed to Nova Scotia.  Three months later, a force of some 400 South Carolina patriots fought a day-long battle with the nine warships of Admiral Sir Peter Parker, before the heavily damaged fleet was forced to withdraw.  The British eventually captured Fort Moultrie and Charleston Harbor along with it but, for now, 1776 was shaping up to be a very good year.

Declaration of IndependenceThe Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, that July.

King’s Regular and Rebel alike understood the strategic importance of New York, as the center of communications between the New England colonies, and those in the south.  Beginning that April, Washington moved his forces from Boston to New York, placing his troops along the west end of Long Island in anticipation of the British arrival.

The British fleet was not long in coming, the first arrivals dropping anchor by the end of June.  Within the week, 130 ships were anchored off Staten Island, under the command of Admiral sir Richard Howe, the General’s brother.  By August 12 the British force numbered 400 vessels with 73 warships, with a force of some 32,000 camped on Staten island.

American forces were badly defeated at the Battle of Brooklyn, fought on August 27, 1776. The British dug in for a siege, confident that their adversary was cornered and waiting to be destroyed at their convenience, while the main Patriot army retreated to Brooklyn Heights.

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“British troops in the type of flat-bottomed boat used for the invasion of Long Island. Hessians in their blue uniforms are in the two boats that are only partly visible”. H/T Wikipedia

Cornered on land with the British-controlled East River to their backs, it may have been all over for the Patriot cause, but for one of the great feats of military history.   The surprise was complete for the British side on waking for the morning of August 30, to discover that the American army, had vanished. The silent evacuation over the night of August 29-30 had averted disaster, a feat made possible through the nautical skills of the merchants and rum traders, the sailors and the fishermen of Colonel John Glover’s Marblehead, Massachusetts militia, the “Amphibious Regiment”.

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Retreat from long island, August 29-30, 1776

That October, the defeat of General Benedict Arnold’s home-grown “Navy” on the waters near Valcour Island in Vermont, cost the British fleet dearly enough that it had to turn back, buying another year of life for the Patriot cause.

By December, the Continental army had fled New York, to the south of New Jersey.  Already reduced to a puny force of only 4,707 fit for duty, Washington faced a decimation of his army by the New Year, with the end of enlistment for fully two-thirds of those.  With nowhere to go but on offense, Washington crossed the Delaware river in the teeth of a straight-up gale over the night of December 25, defeating a Hessian garrison at Trenton in a surprise attack on the morning of December 26.

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While minor skirmishes by British standards, the January 2-3 American victories at Assunpink Creek and Princeton demonstrated an American willingness, to stand up to the most powerful military of its time.  Cornwallis had suffered three defeats in the last ten days, and withdrew his forces from the south of New Jersey.  American morale soared, as enlistments came flooding in.

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Battle of Princeton, January 3, 1777

The American war for independence would not be over, for another six years.  Before it was through, more Americans would die in the fetid holds of British prison ships than in every battle of the Revolution, combined.  Yet, that first year had come and gone, and the former colonies were still in the fight.

A generation later, Lord Arthur Wellesley described the final defeat of a certain “Corsican corporal” at a place called Waterloo.  Wellesley might have been talking about the whole year of 1776 in describing that day in 1815:  “It was a damn close run thing“.

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.

August 29, 1854 The Resolute Desk

The British government presented a large partner’s desk to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880, a token of gratitude for the return of HMS Resolute, 24 years earlier. Excepting a brief period following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the desk has been in the oval office or a private study in the White House, from that day to this.

Since the time of Columbus, European explorers searched for a navigable shortcut by open water, from Europe to Asia.   The “Corps of Discovery“, better known as the Lewis and Clark expedition, departed the Indiana Territory in 1804 with, among other purposes, and intention of finding a water route to the Pacific.

Forty years later, Captain sir John Franklin departed England aboard two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, to discover the mythical Northwest Passage.

The two ships became icebound in Victoria Strait near King William Island, in the Canadian Arctic.

Ship

Prodded by Lady Jane Franklin, the hunt for her husband’s expedition would continue for years, at one time involving as any as eleven British and two American ships.  Clues were found including notes and isolated graves, telling the story of a long and fruitless effort to stay alive in a hostile climate.  The wreck of HMS Erebus would not be discovered until 2014, her sister ship, two years later.

In 1848, the British Admiralty possessed few ships suitable for arctic service. Two civilian steamships were purchased and converted to exploration vessels: HMS Pioneer and HMS Intrepid, along with four seagoing sailing vessels, Resolute, Assistance, Enterprise and Investigator.

e9b3482e7a0e242654668c20479b9fb4HMS Resolute was a Barque rigged merchant ship, purchased in 1850 as the Ptarmigan, and refitted for Arctic exploration. Re-named Resolute, the vessel became part of a five ship squadron leaving England in April 1852, sailing into the Canadian arctic in search of the doomed Franklin expedition.

Neither Franklin nor any of his 128 officers and men would ever return alive.  HMS Resolute found and rescued the long suffering crew of the HMS Investigator, hopelessly encased in ice where, three years earlier, she too had been searching for the lost expedition.

resoluteice2Three of the HMS Resolute expedition’s ships themselves became trapped in floe ice in August 1853, including Resolute, herself. There was no choice but to abandon ship, striking out across the ice pack in search of their supply ships. Most of them made it, despite egregious hardship, straggling into Beechey Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, between May and August of the following year.

The expedition’s survivors left Beechey Island on August 29, 1854, never to return.
Meanwhile Resolute, alone and abandoned among the ice floes, continued to drift eastward at a rate of 1½ nautical miles per day.

The American whale ship George Henry discovered the drifting Resolute on September 10, 1855, 1,200 miles from her last known position. Captain James Buddington split his crew, half of them now manning the abandoned ship. Fourteen of them sailed Resolute back to their base in Groton CT, arriving on Christmas eve.

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The so-called ‘Pig and Potato War” of 1859 was resolved between the British and American governments with the loss of no more than a single hog, yet a number of border disputes made the late 1850s a difficult time, for American-British relations. Senator James Mason of Virginia presented a bill in Congress to fix up the Resolute, giving her back to her Majesty Queen Victoria’s government as a token of friendship between the two nations.

$40,000 were spent on the refit, and Resolute sailed for England later that year. Commander Henry J. Hartstene presented her to Queen Victoria on December 13. HMS Resolute served in the British navy until being retired and broken up in 1879. The British government ordered two desks to be fashioned from English oak of the ship’s timbers, the work being done by the skilled cabinet makers of the Chatham dockyards. The British government presented a large partner’s desk to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880. A token of gratitude for HMS Resolute’s return, 24 years earlier.

Resolute, ReaganThe desk, known as the Resolute Desk, has been used by nearly every American President since, whether in a private study or the oval office.

FDR had a panel installed in the opening, since he was self conscious about his leg braces. It was Jackie Kennedy who brought the desk into the Oval Office. There are pictures of JFK working at the desk, while his young son JFK, Jr., played under it.
Presidents Johnson, Nixon and Ford were the only ones not to use the Resolute desk, as LBJ allowed it to leave the White House, after the Kennedy assassination.

The Resolute Desk spent several years in the Kennedy Library and later the Smithsonian Institute, the only time the desk has been out of the White House.

Jimmy Carter returned the desk to the Oval Office, where it has remained through the Presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and, thus far, Donald J. Trump.

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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.

August 28, 1854 Broad Street Well

If you’re ever in London, stop and hoist a glass to an unsung hero.  One of the Founding Fathers, of modern epidemiology.

The waterborne bacterium Vibrio cholerae (V. cholerae) lives in the warm waters of coastal estuaries and rivers, and the waters along coastal plains. Most of the time, those contracting the bacterium do so by consuming contaminated water, developing only mild symptoms or none at all.

Most times the infection resolves itself yet, at times, urban density has combined with poor sanitation, to produce some of the most hideous pandemics, in medical history.

The origins of Cholera, are unknown. The Portuguese explorer Gaspar Correa described a flare-up in the Ganges Delta city of Bangladesh in the spring of 1543, an outbreak so virulent that it killed most victims within eight hours, with a mortality rate so high that locals struggled to bury all the dead.

vibrio-cholerae-louisa-howard-and-charles-daghlian-and-photo-researchers

V. Cholerae populations undergo explosive growth in the intestines of the sufferer, releasing a toxin and causing cells to expel massive quantities of fluid. Severe cramps lead to “rice water” diarrhea and the rapid loss of electrolytes.  Dehydration is so severe that it leads to plummeting blood pressures and often, death.  It’s easy to see how the disease can “spike”.  One such episode can cause a million-fold increase in bacterial populations in the environment, according to the CDC.

The first pandemic emerged out of the Ganges Delta in 1817, spreading to Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. 100,000 were killed on the island of Java, alone. The severe winter of 1823-’24 appears to have killed off much of the bacteria living in water supplies, but not for long.

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H/T Cholera. Between Life and Death Fr. Scott Binet MD, MI CTF-SOS D RS Sao Paulo, Brazil – October 20, 2011

The second Cholera pandemic began in 1830-’31, spreading throughout Poland, Russia and Germany. The disease reached Great Britain in 1832, when authorities undertook quarantines and other measures, to contain the outbreak.

Four years earlier, William Burke and William Hare had carried out 16 murders over a ten-month period in Edinburgh, selling the corpses to Doctor Robert Knox for dissection during his anatomy lectures. Now, quarantines were met with pubic fear, and distrust of government and medical authorities. ‘Cholera riots’ broke out in Liverpool and London, with demands to ‘Bring out the Burkers”.

burke_and_hare-600x450The world would see four more cholera pandemics between 1852 and 1923, with the first being by far, the deadliest. This one devastated much of Asia, North America and Africa. in 1854, the worst year of the outbreak, 23,000 died in Great Britain, alone.

In 1760, the British capital of London was home to some 740,000 souls. One-hundred years later, population shifts had ballooned that number to nearly 3.2 million, in a city without running water.

A_Drop_of_Thames_Water,_by_Punch,_1850
A Drop of Thames Water, by Punch,,1850

At one time, the many farms surrounding the city of London used the, er…”stuff” provided by “Gong Farmers”, the ‘nightsoilmen’ whose execrable job it was to shovel out the growing numbers of cesspits throughout the city, for fertilizer.  Transportation costs grew as the city expanded, and the farms moved away.  In 1847, solidified bird droppings (guano) were brought in from South America at a cost far below that of the local stuff, leaving London’s poorer quarters increasingly, to their own filth.

The “Great Stink” of Victorian-era London is beyond the scope of this essay, save to point out that formal portraits may be found of Queen Victoria herself, with a clothespin on her nose.  Today the topic is mildly amusing and not a little disgusting however, in an era before public sewage, we’re talking about life and death.

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In 1854, police constable Thomas Lewis lived with his wife Mary and five-month-old Frances, at 40 Broad Street in the Soho neighborhood of London.  The baby developed severe diarrhea over August 28-29, as Mrs Lewis soaked the soiled ‘nappies’ in pails of water.  These she dumped into the pit in front of her house, as first her baby and then her husband, sickened and died.

The pit was three feet away from the Broad Street well, where much of the neighborhood came to pump drinking water.

homePageImageSeveral other outbreaks had occurred that year, but this one was particularly acute.  Within the next three days, 127 died within a short distance of the Broad Street address.  By September 10, there were five-hundred more.

In the third century AD, the Greek physician Galen of Pergamon first described the “miasma” theory of illness, holding that infectious disease such as Cholera were caused by noxious clouds of “bad air”. Today the theory is discredited but, such ideas die hard.

Most everyone blamed the fetid air for the cholera outbreak, but Dr. John Snow was different.  Snow suspected there was something in the water and, through door-to-door interviews and careful analysis of mortality rates, devised a ‘dot map’ identifying the Broad Street address.

“On proceeding to the spot, I found that nearly all the deaths had taken place within a short distance of the [Broad Street] pump. There were only ten deaths in houses situated decidedly nearer to another street-pump. In five of these cases the families of the deceased persons informed me that they always sent to the pump in Broad Street, as they preferred the water to that of the pumps which were nearer. In three other cases, the deceased were children who went to school near the pump in Broad Street …”

Snow himself believed in the Miasma theory of disease as did Reverend Henry Whitehead, who helped him collect his data. Yet somehow, the pair became convinced that infectious agents were somehow concentrated in the water, and they had found the “Index Case”.

Despite near-universal skepticism regarding Dr. Snow’s theories, the pump handle at 40 Broad Street was removed.  It was later re-installed but, by that time, the danger had passed.  Untold numbers of lives were saved by Dr. Snow’s intervention.

Dr. Snow succumbed to a stroke in 1858 and died at the age of 45, never learning how right he had been.  Dr. Louis Pasteur opened his institute for the study of microbiology, thirty years later.

Today, the place is known as “Broadwick Street”.  There’s a replica of the old water pump out front of #40, across from the John Snow pub.  If you’re ever in London, stop and hoist a glass to an unsung hero.  One of the Founding Fathers, of modern epidemiology.

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.

August 10, 2010 An Awful Place

A chirpy little forecast on weather2travel.com advises the Antarctic traveler to “Check How Hot & Sunny It Is Before You Book Your Next Holiday in 2019,” reporting max daytime temperatures for March, of -51°C.

Roald Amundsen always wanted to go to sea. The fourth son of a family of Norwegian shipowners and captains, Amundsen’s mother wanted no such thing for her boy, and made him vow that he’d go to school to become a doctor. Amundsen was 21 when his mother died.  He kept his promise until that day.  After that, there would be no more school.

Roald Amundsen
Roald Amundsen

Amundsen wanted to become an explorer, taking inspiration from the doomed Franklin Arctic Expedition of 1848, and Fridtjof Nansen’s crossing of Greenland in 1888.

The period would come to be called the “Heroic Age” of polar exploration. Amundsen was drawn to the story, as much as he helped in its creation. He was part of the Antarctic expedition of 1897-99 aboard the RV Belgica, the first to winter in Antarctica. He led the first expedition to successfully navigate Canada’s Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, in 1903–06.

Amundsen’s attempt to reach the South Pole set out on September 8, 1911. Using skis and dog sleds, Amundsen and his men created supply depots at 80°, 81° and 82° south latitude, precious stockpiles of food and equipment at 69-mile intervals on the way to the Pole. The effort proved to be premature and had to be abandoned due to extreme cold. A second attempt departed on October 19 with four sledges and 52 dogs, along the previously unknown Axel Heiberg Glacier.  The team of five men and 16 dogs arrived at 90° 0′ S on December 14, 1911, the first team in history to reach the South Pole.

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Robert Falcon Scott

English explorer Robert Falcon Scott attempted the South Pole in 1901–04, and was doing so once again at the time of the Amundsen expedition. Though he’d had to turn back, the earlier expedition had established the southernmost record for that time, at 88° 23′ S. Ninety-seven miles short of the pole.

Unlike Amundsen who adopted the lighter fur-skins of the Inuit, the Scott expedition wore heavy wool clothing, depending on motorized and horse-drawn transport, and man-hauling sledges for the final drive across the polar plateau. Dog teams were expected to meet them only on the way out, on March 1.

Weak ponies, poorly acclimated to the wretched conditions slowed the depot-laying part of the Scott expedition, four horses dying of cold or having to be shot because they slowed the team.

Expedition member Lawrence “Titus” Oates warned Scott against the decision to locate “One-Ton Depot” 35-miles short of its planned location at 80°.  His words would prove prophetic.  “Sir, I’m afraid you’ll come to regret not taking my advice.”

Unlike his previous attempt, Scott made it this time, only to find that Amundsen’s Norwegian expedition had beat him by a mere five weeks. The anguish in Scott’s diary entry for January 17, 1912, is palpable: “The worst has happened…All the day dreams must go…Great God! This is an awful place”.

Wilson
“Scott captures Dr Edward Wilson sketching on Beardmore Glacier during his final expedition to the Antarctic in 1912”. H/T Guardian.com

Roald Amundsen returned safely and publicly announced his attainment of the South Pole on March 7, 1912.

Defeated, the five-man Scott party began the 800-mile, frozen slog back from the Pole on January 19.  Team member Edgar “Taff” Evans’ condition began to deteriorate as early as the 23rd. A bad fall on Beardmore Glacier on February 4 left him “dull and incapable”. Another fall on the 17th left Evans dead at the foot of the glacier.

Dog teams failed to materialize at the appointed time.  Within days, Oates himself was severely frostbitten, concerned that his incapacity was a threat and a burden to the team. The man left his tent for the last time and limped into the blizzard on March 17, saying “I am just going outside and may be some time”.  He never returned.

331221e7257641dd320331d5341f2627--robert-falcon-scott-captain-scottNoble though it was, Lawrence Oates’ suicide came to naught.  The last three made their final camp on March 19, with 400 miles to go.   A howling blizzard descended on the tents the following day and lasted for days, as Scott, Henry “Birdie” Bowers and Dr. Edward Wilson wrote good-bye letters to mothers, wives, and others.  In his final starved, frostbitten hours, Robert Falcon Scott wrote to his diary “It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.” In his final entry, Scott worried about the financial burden on his family, and those of the doomed expedition: “Last entry.  For God’s sake look after our people”.

The specific meteorological conditions of those final days, went unrecorded.  A chirpy little forecast on http://www.weather2travel.com advises the Antarctic traveler to “Check How Hot & Sunny It Is Before You Book Your Next Holiday in 2019,” reporting maximum daytime temperatures for March, of -51°C.

The frozen corpses of Scott and his comrades were found some eight months later, that last diary entry dated March 29, 1912.  A high cairn of snow was erected over it all, that final camp becoming the three men’s tomb. Ship’s carpenters built a wooden cross, inscribing on it the names of those lost: Scott, Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Lawrence Oates and Edgar Evans. A line from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses, appears on the cross: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.

6303323d3bf163bd7706d70a5f6fc7bfThe last three survivors died eleven miles from their next supply depot.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard, part of the expedition to find the doomed Scott party, survived similar conditions by some kind of miracle and wrote in The Worst Journey in the World, that his teeth chattered so violently, that some of them broke.

Satellites measured the coldest temperature in recorded history on August 10, 2010 at −93.2 °C (−135.8 °F), in East Antarctica.  The Amundsen-Scott weather station at the South Pole reports the average daily temperature for March, at -50.3°C (-58.54°F).

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Routes taken to the South Pole by Amundsen (Red) and Scott (Green)

On hearing of the fate of his erstwhile rival, Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen is quoted as saying “I would gladly forgo any honour or money if thereby I could have saved Scott his terrible death”.

A century of ice and snow have covered the bodies, the camp and the cross alike. Pressed ever downward by the weight of the snow and ice and creeping seaward with the glacier, the corpses are encased seventy-five-feet down in the Ross Ice Shelf and inching their way outward, expected to reach the Ross Sea sometime around 2276.  Perhaps to break off and float away, at the heart of some unknown future iceberg.

Feature image, top of page “Final call: From left-righy, Dr E. A. Wilson, Lt. H. R, Bowers, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, Petty Officer Taff Evans and Capt. L. E.G. Oates pose for a photo not long before they died on their way back from their trek“.  H/T Guardian.com

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.