December 6, 1768 The Murderer’s Dictionary

Among the entire catalog of works there is no tale so queer as the Oxford English dictionary, and the convicted murderer who helped to bring it into being.  From an insane asylum, no less.

For the great reference works of the English language, the beginnings were often surprisingly modest. Encyclopedia Britannica was first published on this day in 1768 in Edinburgh, Scotland: part of the Scottish enlightenment. Webster’s dictionary got its beginnings with a single infantrymen of the American Revolution, who went on to codify what would become the standardized system of spelling for “American English“.  In Noah Webster’s dictionary, ‘colour’ became ‘color’, and programme’ became ‘program’, a novel concept at a time when the thought of a “correct“ way of spelling, was a new and unfamiliar idea.

Among the entire catalog of works there is no tale so queer as the Oxford English dictionary, and the convicted murderer who helped bring it into being.  From an insane asylum, no less.

Dissatisfied with what were at that time a spare four reference works including Webster’s dictionary, the Philological society of London first discussed what was to become the standard reference work of the English language, in 1857. The work was expected to take 10 years in compilation and cover some 64,000 pages.  The editors were off by sixty years.  Five years into the project, the team had made it all the way to “ant“.

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Dr. William Chester Minor

William Chester Minor was a physician around this time, serving the Union army during the American Civil War.   

The role of this experience in the man’s later psychosis, is impossible to know. Minor was in all likelihood a paranoid schizophrenic, a condition poorly understood in his day.

As a combat surgeon, Minor saw things that no man was ever meant to see.  Terrible mutilation was inflicted on both sides at the 1864 Battle of the Wilderness.  Hundreds were wounded and unable to get out of the way of the brush fire, burning alive those sufferers too broken to move, before the horrified eyes of comrades and enemies, alike.  One soldier would later write:  It was as though “hell itself had usurped the place of earth“.

Dr. Minor was ordered to brand the forehead of an Irish deserter, with the letter “D”.  The episode scarred the soldier, and left the doctor with paranoid delusions that the Irish were coming to ‘get him’.

As a child born to New England missionaries working in Ceylon, Minor was well adjusted to the idea of foreign travel, as a means of dealing with travail. He took a military pension and moved to London in 1871, to escape the demons who were by that time, closing in.

One day, Minor shot and killed one George Merritt, a stoker who was walking to work.  He believed the man had broken into his room.  The trial was published widely, the “Lambeth Tragedy” revealing the full extent of Minor’s delusional state, to the public.

Minor was judged not guilty on grounds of insanity, and remanded “until Her Majesty’s Pleasure be known”, to the Broadmoor institution for the criminally insane. Victorian England was by no means ‘enlightened’ by modern standards, and inmates were always referred to as ‘criminals’ and ‘lunatics’. Never as ‘patients’. Yet Broadmoor, located on 290 acres in the village of Crowthorne in Berkshire was England’s newest such asylum, and a long way from previous such institutions.

Minor was housed in block 2, the “Swell Block”, where his military pension and family wealth afforded him two rooms, instead of the usual one. In time, Minor acquired so many books that one room was converted to a library.  Surprisingly, it was Merritt’s widow Eliza, who delivered many of the books.  The pair became friends, and Minor used a portion of his wealth to “pay” for his crime, and to help the widow raise her six kids.

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Broadmoor asylum for the criminally insane

Dr. James Murray assumed editorship of the “Big Dictionary” of English in 1879, and issued an appeal in magazines and newspapers, for outside contributions. Whether this seemed a shot at redemption to William Minor or merely something to do with his time is anyone’s guess, but Minor had nothing but time. And books.

William Minor collected his first quotation in 1880 and continued to do so for twenty years, always signing his submissions: Broadmoor, Crowthorne, Berkshire.

The scope of the man’s work was prodigious, he himself an enigma, assumed to be some country gentlemen.  Perhaps one of the overseers, at the asylum.

In 1897, “The Surgeon of Crowthorne” failed to attend the Great Dictionary dinner.  Dr. Murray decided to meet his mysterious contributor in person and finally did so, four years later.  In his cell. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall, when this Oxford don was ushered into the office of Broadmoor’s director, only to learn that the man he looked for, was an inmate.

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Dr. “Murray at work in his scriptorium, a dedicated room filled with books, at Oxford University (date unknown)”. H/T allthatsinteresting.com

Dr. Minor would carefully index and document each entry, which editors compared with the earliest such word use submitted by other lexicographers. In this manner, over 10,000 of his submissions made it into the finished work, including the words ‘colander’, ‘countenance’ and ‘ulcerated’.

By 1902, Minor’s paranoid delusions had crowded out his mind.  His submissions came to an end.  What monsters lurked inside the man’s head is anyone’s guess.  Home Secretary Winston Churchill ordered Minor to be removed back home to the United States, following a 1910 episode in which Minor emasculated himself, with a knife.

The madman lived out the last ten years of his life, in various institutions for the criminally insane. William Chester Minor died in 1920 and went to his rest in a small inauspicious grave, in Connecticut.

Over seventy years in compilation, only one single individual is credited with more entries to the greatest reference work in the history of the English language, than this one murderer, working from a home for lunatics.

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Oxford English Dictionary

Feature image, top of page:  Dr. Murray and his Oxford University editorial team, 1915.  H/T allthatsinteresting.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.
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November 5, 2004 I Did not Die

For nigh on seventy years, few knew from where this little known bit of verse, had come.

In the early 1930s, Mary Elizabeth Frye was a Baltimore housewife and amateur florist, the wife of clothing merchant, Claud Frye.

A young Jewish girl was living with the couple at this time, unable to visit her sick mother in Germany, due to the growing anti-Semitic violence of the period.  Her name was Margaret Schwarzkopf.

Margaret was bereft when her mother died, heartbroken that she could never “stand by my mother’s grave and shed a tear.” Mrs Frye took up a brown paper shopping bag, and wrote out this twelve line verse.

She didn’t title the poem, nor did she ever publish it, nor copyright the work.  People heard about it and liked it so Frye would make copies, but that’s about it.

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For nigh on seventy years, few knew from where this little known bit of verse, had come.

Over the years, there have been many claims to authorship, including attributions to traditional and Native American origins.

The unknown poem has been translated into Danish, Dutch, French, German, Hebrew, Ilocano, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog and other languages, appearing on countless bereavement cards and read over untold funeral services.

The English translation of one Swedish version reads: “Do not weep at my grave – I am not there / I am in the sun’s reflection in the sea / I am in the wind’s play above the grain fields / I am in the autumn’s gentle rain / I am in the Milky Way’s string of stars / And when on an early morning you are awaked by bird’s song / It is my voice that you are hearing / So do not weep at my grave – we shall meet again.

Many in the United Kingdom heard the poem for the first time in 1995, when a grieving father read it over BBC radio in honor of his son, a soldier slain by a bomb in Northern Ireland. The son had left the poem with a few personal effects, and marked the envelope ‘To all my loved ones’.

For National Poetry Day that year, the British television program The Bookworm conducted a poll to learn the nation’s favorite poems, subsequently publishing the winners, in book form. The book’s preface describes “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” as “the unexpected poetry success of the year from Bookworm’s point of view… the requests started coming in almost immediately and over the following weeks the demand rose to a total of some thirty thousand. In some respects it became the nation’s favourite poem by proxy… despite it being outside the competition.”

All this at a time when the name and even the nationality of the author, was unknown.

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Abigail Van Buren, better known as “Dear Abby”, researched the history of the poem in 1998, and determined that Mrs. Frye was, after all, the author.

Mary Elizabeth Frye passed away in Baltimore Maryland on September 4, 2004. She was ninety-eight.

The Times of Great Britain published her untitled work on November 5, as part of her obituary. ‘The verse demonstrated a remarkable power to soothe loss”, wrote the Times. “It became popular, crossing national boundaries for use on bereavement cards and at funerals regardless of race, religion or social status”.

I Did Not Die”
by Mary Elizabeth Frye

Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft star-shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.

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August 27, 1955 Guinness Book of World Records

The free reference book once intended to inform barroom squabbles has spawned a franchise including museums and television programs, becoming the leading  international authority for the certification of every world record you can think of, from the longest fingernail (2 feet, 11 inches), to the longest mustache (14 feet), to slam dunking basketball bunnies.

Hugh Campbell Beaver was a British engineer and industrialist and, at the time of this story, Managing Director of the brewery founded by Arthur Guinness, about two hundred years earlier. Beaver was on a hunting trip in County Rexford in Ireland, when a friendly argument broke out among the group. Which is the fastest game bird in Europe, the golden plover, or the grouse?

StjamesgateThe information was surprisingly difficult to find, and no reference book was available to settle the matter.

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Julia Gnuse, Guinness World Record most tatooed woman H/T IrishCentral.com

At that time, there were some 81,400 pubs in Great Britain and Ireland. What if they all had a reference book to settle such weighty matters, while enjoying a Guinness Draught, of course.

Beaver turned out to be more correct, than he realized.

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H/T Today.com

At that time, Norris and Ross McWhirter were running a fact-finding agency in London “to supply facts and figures to newspapers, yearbooks, encyclopedias and advertisers” and working as sports reporters, on the side. One of the athletes they covered was the middle and long-distance runner Christopher Chataway, who just happened to work for the Guinness Brewery.

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“Chandra Bahadur Dangi, from Nepal, left, the shortest adult to have ever been verified by Guinness World Records, poses for pictures with the world’s tallest man Sultan Kosen from Turkey, in London on November 13, 2014, to mark Guinness World Records Day.” H/T Today.com

Chattaway introduced the pair to Beaver in 1954. Guinness’ directors were impressed with the encyclopedic knowledge possessed by the McWhirter twins, when it came to facts and figures. The brothers agreed to take up work and, on this day in 1955, the 198-page Guinness Book of Records was first published in Great Britain.

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“Guinness World Records Day: The world’s shortest married couple”  H/T Express.co.uk

The book was intended to be given out for free, but proved to be far more popular than anyone had expected. The company began selling it that fall. Within four months, the book was non-fiction best-seller, in all the United Kingdom.

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“Norris McWhirter holding a copy of the largest diamond in the world (1977)” HWikipedia

Soon, the McWhirter brothers were traveling the world over, to research and verify records. The first American edition was published in 1956, followed by editions in other countries.

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Largest human image, of a camera. H/T Nikon

In the early 1960s, the McWhirter twins became involved in British Conservative party politics, bringing the pair into conflict with the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Ross was hunted down and murdered in front of his home in 1975, by IRA gunmen. His brother Norris continued to serve as the book’s editor until retiring, in 1986.

Guinness-World-Records-2017-stars-main_tcm55-443157The free reference book once intended to inform barroom squabbles has spawned a franchise including museums and television programs, becoming the leading  international authority for the certification of every world record you can think of, from the longest fingernail (2 feet, 11 inches), to the longest mustache (14 feet), to slam dunking basketball bunnies.

As of this year the book is in its 63rd year of publication, published in 100 countries and 23 languages and itself holding a world record, as the best-selling copyrighted book of all time.

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.

May 3, 1915 The Poppy Red

No free citizen of a self-governing Republic, should ever forget where we come from. Or the prices paid by our forebears, to get us here.

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Dr. John McCrae with Bonneau

John McCrae was a physician and amateur poet from Guelph, Ontario. Following the outbreak of WWI, he enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force at the age of 41.

Dr. McCrae had the option of joining the medical corps based on his training and his age, but volunteered instead to join a fighting unit as gunner and medical officer. McCrae had previously served in the Boer War.  This would be his second tour of duty in the Canadian military.

McCrae fought in one of the most horrendous battles of the Great War, the second battle of Ypres, in the Flanders region of Belgium. Imperial Germany launched one of the first chemical attacks in history, attacking the Canadian position with chlorine gas on April 22, 1915. The Canadian line was broken but quickly reformed, in near-constant fighting that lasted for over two weeks.

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Alexis Helmer

Dr. McCrae later wrote to his mother, describing the nightmare. “For seventeen days and seventeen nights”, he wrote, “none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds … and behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way”.

On May 3, Dr. McCrae presided over the funeral of his friend and fellow soldier Alexis Helmer, who had died in the battle. He performed the burial service himself, when he noted how quickly the red poppies grew on the graves of the fallen. He composed this poem the next day, while sitting in the back of an ambulance.war-poppies

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Moina Michael

Moina Michael was browsing through the Ladies Home Journal when she came across McCrae’s poem. It was Saturday morning, November 9, 1918. Two days before the armistice.

She was so moved that she made a personal pledge to “keep the faith”, vowing always to wear a red poppy as a sign of remembrance of the dead. She scribbled down a response on the back of a used envelope, calling her poem “We Shall Keep the Faith”.

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The vivid red flower blooming on the battlefields of Belgium, France and Gallipoli came to symbolize the staggering loss of life in the “Great War”. Since then, the red poppy has become an internationally recognized symbol of remembrance of the lives lost in all wars.

I keep a red poppy pinned to my laptop bag, and another on the visor of my car. Both serve as reminders that no free citizen of a self-governing Republic should ever forget where we come from. Or the prices paid by our forebears, to get us here.

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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.

 

April 29, 1915  The Wipers Times

My favorite among the classified ads has to be the “Flammenwerfer” (Flame Thrower). “Guaranteed absolutely harmless.”  “Instructive – Amusing”.

As chief of the Imperial German general staff from 1891-1905, German Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen devised the strategic roadmap by which Germany prosecuted the first world war. The “Schlieffen Plan” could be likened to a bar fight, where a fighter (Germany) had to take out one guy fast (France), before turning and facing his larger and somewhat slower buddy (Imperial Russia).

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Of infinite importance to Schlieffen’s plan was the westward sweep through France, rolling that nation’s ground forces into a ball on a timetable before his armies could turn east to face the “Russian Steamroller”. “When you march into France”, Schlieffen had said, “let the last man on the right brush the Channel with his sleeve.”

Ypres SalientField Marshall Helmuth von Moltke once said “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy”.  So it was in the tiny Belgian city where German plans met with ruin, on the road to Dunkirk. Native Dutch speakers called the place Leper.  Today we know it as Ypres (Ee-pres), since battle maps of the time were drawn up in French. To the Tommys of the British Expeditionary Force, the place was “Wipers”.

What had hitherto been a war of movement ground to a halt in the apocalyptic fighting around Ypres, in October-November, 1914. The scale of the casualties are hard to get your head around.  Over four years, several hundred thousand sons of Germany, Great Britain and France were killed in the battles for the Ypres Salient – a battlefield only 24 kilometers, square.  100 military burial grounds or more, contain their mortal remains.

YpresThe second Battle for Ypres began with a new and terrifying weapon on April 22, 1915. German troops placed 5,730 gas cylinders weighing 90 pounds apiece, along a four-mile front. Allied troops must have looked on in wonder, as that vast yellow-green carpet crept toward their lines.

Chlorine gas forms hypochlorous acid when combined with water, destroying the moist tissues of the lungs and eyes. Heavier than air, the stuff slithered along the ground and poured into trenches, forcing troops out into heavy German fire. 6,000 casualties were sustained in the gas attack alone, opening a four mile gap in the allied line. Thousands retched and coughed out their last breath, as others tossed their equipment and ran in terror.

After the war, German losses were estimated at 34,933 between April 21 and May 30.  BEF casualties numbered 59,275. The French recorded about 18,000 on April 22 alone, and another 3,973 by April 29. All told, 2nd Ypres cost allied forces 87,223 killed, wounded or missing.

The third Battle of Ypres would begin in July of 1917, lasting almost until the end of the war. 3rd Ypres would result in 570,000 losses on all sides, but in early 1916, that was all part of some unknown and terrible future.

It’s hard to imagine anything remotely humorous coming out of the horrors of this place, but such became possible in the early months of 1916.

Optimism advert

First established in 1881, the “Sherwood Foresters” were line infantry Regiments (Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiments) of the British Army, at this time stationed at the front lines of the Ypres salient.  The unit came across a printing press.  Corporal George Turner, who’d been a printer in civil life, got the thing going. The Forresters began a trench magazine, a PDF of which may be downloaded HERE.  The first edition of the Wipers Times published on February 12, 1916.  The paper included poems and reflections, news, “adverts” and the blackest of humor.

Written for fellow soldiers, some of the in-jokes are so obscure that their meaning is lost to the modern reader. Others are clearly understandable, even 102 years later.

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Richly typeset advertisements for “Music Hall Extravaganzas” included “Tickling Fritz” by the P.B.I. (Poor Bloody Infantry) Film Co. of the United Kingdom and Canada, advising the enthusiast to “Book Early”. There were Real Estate ads for property in no-man’s land. “BUILD THAT HOUSE ON HILL 60. BRIGHT-BREEZY-&-INVIGORATING. COMMANDS AN EXCELLENT VIEW OF HISTORIC TOWN OF YPRES”. Another one read “FOR SALE, THE SALIENT ESTATE – COMPLETE IN EVERY DETAIL! UNDERGROUND RESIDENCES READY FOR HABITATION. Splendid Motoring Estate! Shooting Perfect !! Fishing Good!!!”

Old Masters

There were advertisements for barbed wire cutters with built-in umbrellas, for the most discerning of gentlemen.

There were news features, this one of a bungled trench raid: “”…They climbed into the trench and surprised the sentry, but unfortunately the revolver which was held to his head missed fire. Attempts were made to throttle him quietly, but he succeeded in raising the alarm, and had to be killed.” editor’s note, “This we consider real bad luck for the sentry after the previous heroic efforts to keep him alive””.

There were weather reports, laying odds on the forecast. “5 to 1 Mist, 11 to 2 East Wind or Frost, 8 to 1 Chlorine”. My favorite among the classifieds has got to be the “Flammenwerfer” (Flame Thrower). “Guaranteed absolutely harmless.”  “Instructive – Amusing”.

Miss Minnie WerferUnits of all sizes, from individual companies to army corps, lightened the load of the “War to end all Wars”, with some kind of unit journal.

Some officers were not amused by the underground paper, and thought its publication should be banned. Others believed that it kept some semblance of morale in the trenches. One pointed out that “humour is what distinguishes us from barbarism.”

The Wipers Times ran through the end of the war, with the exception of the “Operation Michael” period, the last gasp German Western Front offensive of 1918. The final edition, titled “The Better Times”, was published in December 1918, just short of two months after the armistice.   The banner headline on that final edition read “Xmas, Peace and Final Number.”

Better Times Headline

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 29, 1895 If

The younger Kipling would not survive his father. He entered the First World War, and disappeared in the Battle of Loos, in 1915. His body was never found. The elder Kipling’s gift would live on, the words of fatherly advice to an only son, in a poem he called “If”.

It was the 9th of February, 1853, in Edinburgh, Scotland. Robert William Jameson went for a walk, while his wife and mother of his 11 children, a woman with the unlikely name of Christian Pringle, labored to deliver their 12th child. Jameson slipped on a grassy embankment and into a frigid canal, where he would have drowned if not for the kindly stranger who fished him out. The man said he was an American, named Leander Starr.  Before the day was over, Starr was godfather to a newborn Scottish baby boy.  Leander Starr Jameson.

ec213-afrForty years later and half a world away, what would one day become South Africa was divided into four entities: the two British possessions of Cape Colony and Natal, and the two Boer (Dutch) Republics of the Orange Free State and the South African Republic, better known as Transvaal. Of the four states, Natal and the two Boer Republics were mainly agricultural, populated by subsistence farmers. The Cape Colony was by far the largest, dominating the other three economically, culturally, and socially.

There was considerable friction between Dutch and English settlers, stemming largely from differing attitudes toward slavery. British authorities passed legislation back in 1828, promising equal treatment for all under the law, regardless of race. Boer farmers argued that they needed forced labor to make their farms work, and that slaveholders were too little compensated upon emancipation.

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Cetshwayo, King of the Zulus (d.1884), by Carl Rudolph Sohn

The situation was exacerbated in 1867, with the discovery of vast diamond deposits near modern day Kimberly, in Orange Free State territory. The Cape soon annexed the territory as its own, which I think is a fancy term for “stole”.  The Boers found themselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place, pressed by the British from the south and west, and by the Zulu “Impi” (army) of King Cetshwayo kaMpande to the north. War broke out between the two sides in 1880-81, called the “First Anglo-Boer War” by one side; the “First Freedom War” by the other.

Gold was discovered near Johannesburg in 1886, massive amounts of it, drawing tens of thousands of “Uitlanders”:  English, American and Australian foreigners, in search of employment and fortune.

Governor of the Cape Colony Cecil Rhodes wanted to incorporate the Transvaal and the Orange Free State into a single federation under British control, while the Transvaal government of Paul Kruger feared just that. Soon outnumbered by Uitlanders two to one, Transvaal limited the right to vote to those having many years’ residency, and imposing heavy taxes on gold mining profits.

By mid-1895, Rhodes had concocted a plan. In a scheme which could only be described as hare-brained, he would send an armed raid into Johannesburg, inciting an uprising of Uitlanders, with the aim of stepping in to take control. Back in London, the father of future Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, thought that was a swell idea, and did everything he could to encourage it.

On December 29, 1895, 400 Matabeleland Mounted Police and 200 assorted volunteers crossed from Rhodesia into Transvaal, with Leander Starr Jameson at their head.

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The raid was a humiliating failure.  They cut a wire fence, thinking it was a telegraph wire.  Transvaal authorities were tracking them from the moment they crossed the border. Meanwhile, Chamberlain got cold feet, saying that “if this succeeds it will ruin me. I’m going up to London to crush it”. Chamberlain ordered Sir Hercules Robinson, Governor-General of the Cape Colony, to repudiate the raid, threatening Rhodes and calling on British settlers in the Transvaal not to lend any aid to the raiders.

After several sharp encounters with dug in and well-prepared defenders, what remained of the raiders entered Pretoria on January 2, in chains. The Transvaal government received almost £1 million compensation from the British South Africa Company, turning their prisoners over to be tried by the British government. Jameson was convicted of leading the raid and sentenced to 15 months in prison.

During the whole ordeal, he never revealed the degree to which British politicians supported the raid, or the way they had betrayed him in the end.

Chamberlain Tries to Avert the Jameson Raid
Boer cartoon: Chamberlain Tries to Avert the Jameson Raid

So impressed was the poet, Rudyard Kipling, with Jameson’s display of stoicism under adversity, that he wrote a poem about it in 1895, later giving it to his son, Lieutenant John Kipling.

The younger Kipling would not survive his father. He entered the First World War, and disappeared in the Battle of Loos, in 1915. His body was never found.

The elder Kipling’s gift would live on, the words of fatherly advice to an only son, in a poem he called “If”.

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December 19, 1843  A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens’ masterpiece, A Christmas Carol, was published for the first time 174 years ago on this day, December 19, 1843.

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

That wasn’t what you thought I’d say, was it.

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Charles Dickens’ 1842 travelogue

The 29-year-old Charles Dickens was already a well-known and popular author when he stepped onto the shores of Boston Harbor on January 22, 1842.

“The Pickwick Papers,” “Oliver Twist,” “Nicholas Nickleby”; were all behind the young author at the time of his trip to America, perhaps to write a travelogue, or maybe looking for material for a new novel.

Dickens traveled to Watertown, Massachusetts, to the Perkins School for the Blind, where Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan had educated each other, a half-century later.

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

LowellMillGirlsIn February, Dickens took a train north to the factory town of Lowell, visiting the textile mills and speaking with the “mill girls”, the women who worked there.  Once again, he seemed to believe that his native England suffered in the comparison.  Dickens spoke of the new buildings and the well dressed, healthy young women who worked in them, no doubt comparing them with the teeming slums and degraded conditions in London.

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

Over a century and a half later, Natalie McKnight, professor of English and dean at Boston University, read the same 400 pages that Dickens read.  She couldn’t help but notice similarities between the work of the mill girls, and “A Christmas Carol,” published about a year and a half after Dickens’ visit.  Chelsea Bray was a senior English major at the time.  Professor McKnight asked her to read those same pages.

7ba33a5b1a569dd293edd9eff5d8eb80--christmas-carol-vintage-christmasThe research which followed was published in the form of a thesis, later fleshed out to a full-length book:

“Dickens and Massachusetts
The Lasting Legacy of the Commonwealth Visits
How Massachusetts shaped Dickens’s view of America”
Edited by Diana C. Archibald and Joel J. Brattin
Published May 1, 2015.

The book describes a number of similarities between the two works, making the argument that Dickens familiar story draws much from his experience in Lowell.

Charles Dickens’ masterpiece, A Christmas Carol, was published for the first time 174 years ago on this day, December 19, 1843.

 

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 the same. 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.