February 13, 1961 A Prehistoric Spark Plug

Winston Churchill once quipped “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on”.  Guess he got that right.

Sometime around Easter Sunday, 1900, Captain Dimitrios Kondos set sail from the island of Symi. Kondos and a team of Greek sponge divers worked their way through the Peloponnese, across the Aegean en route to the rich fishing grounds off the coast of North Africa. The team was stopped and waiting for favorable winds off the Greek Island of Antikythera, when some of the divers thought they’d have a look around.

Elias Stadiatis descended some 150-feet, and quickly signaled that he wanted to come back up.  Stadiatis told a wild tale about a rocky bottom, strewn with the rotting corpses and men and horses. Dozens of them.

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Greek sponge divers

The effects of nitrogen narcosis were well understood by this time, that lethally narcotic-like state of drunkenness where deep divers have been known to hand regulators, to fish. Captain Kondos was convinced that Stadiatis was drunk on nitrogen. He donned the canvas suit and brass helmet, and went down to look for himself.

The divers had discovered a 1st-century (BC) shipwreck, a treasure trove of statuary: four marble horses, and thirty-six stone statues including Hercules, Ulysses, Diomedes, Hermes and Apollo.

The most astonishing find from the wreck was a complex clock-like mechanism, believed to be built around 100-200BC and vastly more sophisticated than anything known to have come from antiquity. In more recent years, computer x-ray tomography and high resolution surface scanning have revealed the enormous sophistication of the “Antikythera mechanism“, an analog computer comprising some 37 exquisitely precise gear wheels, enabling the device to follow the moon and sun through the full cycle of the zodiac.

The thing can even recreate the variable velocity of the moon, as the body speeds up through its perigee, and slows through the apogee.

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Antikythera mechanism, recreation

What those Greek sponge divers had discovered was an Out-of-Place Artifact, (OOPArt), an object which called into question, our understanding of what has come before.  OOPArts are artifacts of historical, archaeological, or paleontological interest, evincing a more advanced technology than known to have existed at the time, or even a human (or at least intelligent) hand at a time and place, where none are known to exist.

OOPArts run the gamut from the genuinely surprising to risible hoaxes to the favorites of cryptozoologists, UFOologists, paranormal enthusiasts and proponents of ancient astronaut theories.  Some turn out to be objects of mistaken interpretation, based on little more than wishful thinking.

The Iron Pillar outside the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque in Delhi is believed to date from the fifth century Gupta monarchs of India.  Standing 23-feet, 8-inches and weighing in at 13,000-pounds, the thing is almost entirely free of rust, demonstrating a level of metallurgical proficiency, surprising for the time.

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The “London Hammer” was found in June 1934 near London Texas. It’s a common enough object, except is seems to be embedded, in 400 million year-old rock. Geologist J.R. Cole explains the conundrum:

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London Hammer

“The stone is real, and it looks impressive to someone unfamiliar with geological processes. How could a modern artifact be stuck in Ordovician rock? The answer is that the concretion itself is not Ordovician. Minerals in solution can harden around an intrusive object dropped in a crack or simply left on the ground if the source rock (in this case, reportedly Ordovician) is chemically soluble”.

“Young Earth Creationist” Carl Baugh has other ideas, claiming the object to be a “monumental pre-flood discovery”. You can see the London Hammer and decide for yourself, at the Creation Evidence Museum, in Glen Rose Texas.

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USNS Eltanin photo, 1964

The “Eltanin Antennae” was photographed by the cargo-carrying icebreaker and oceanographic research vessel USNS Eltanin in 1964.  Located on the sea floor off the Antarctic coast, the object lies under 12,808 feet of water.

To many, the object is clearly the result of intelligent life, even extra-terrestrials.  Author Brad Steiger has called it“an astonishing piece of machinery… very much like the cross between a TV antenna and a telemetry antenna“.

Other authorities have identified the object as Chondrocladia concrescens, an unusual carnivorous sponge.

Artist Karl Weingärtner created a mobile phone-style clay tablet for a museum display in 2012, complete with cuneiform script, keypad. Weingärtner posted a photo to his Facebook account, to help sell his art. Some wag dubbed the thing “BabyloNokia”, and it was off to the races. The “Conspiracy Club” website ran the image with the caption: “800-Year-Old Mobile Phone Found In Austria? Check This Out.”

Babylonokia

For the editors at UFO Sighting Daily, the BabyloNokia was proof positive that ancient astronauts had been here. Not to be outdone, the British tabloid Daily Express ran with Weingärtner’s image, claiming the object dated to the 13th century, BC.

Winston Churchill once quipped “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on“.  Guess he got that right.

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A large geode, lined with Amethyst crystals

Wallace Lane, Virginia Maxey and Mike Mikesell liked to prospect for geodes, near the California town of Olancha.

A geode is a hollow stone formation,  containing a secondary lining of crystals or mineral matter.  Geodes form slowly, over geologic time.  There’s no way of knowing what’s inside, until it’s broken or cut, apart.

On this day in 1961, the trio discovered the “Coso Artifact”, a geode containing an unusual object.  A Champion spark plug.

A reader wrote to Desert Magazine, claiming a trained geologist had dated the thing, at 500,000 years old.  The identity of the “trained geologist”, went unsaid.

A number of Pseudoscientific theories arose, to explain the object:

• The spark plug was evidence of an ancient, advanced civilization, possibly proof of the long lost city of Atlantis, itself.
• Prehistoric extraterrestrial visitors came to Earth. How such creatures came to possess a “Champion” spark plug, went unanswered.
• Human time-travelers from the future had left or lost the spark plug, thus proving their visit to the past.

The answer it seems, was more prosaic.  Researchers determined with help from the Spark Plug Collectors of America (who knew?), that this was a 1920s-era Champion spark plug, widely used in the engines of Model T and Model A Fords. The “geode” wasn’t that at all, but the accretion of iron and other minerals, produced as the object rusted in the ground.

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Geologists from the University of Washington Earth and Space Science department were invited to inspect the thing again, just last year. Scientists confirmed the opinion that this was a 1920s-vintage plug but, I don’t know.

Sounds to me like someone’s still betting on the 500,000-year version of the story.

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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February 12, 1355 Of Towns and Gowns

2,000 men flooded in from the countryside, howling as they advanced “Slea, Slea…. Havock, Havock…. Smyte fast, give gode knocks.”

If you’re ever in Oxford, England, stop and see the four-way road junction called  “Carfax”.  The name derives from the Latin “quadrifurcus” via the French “carrefour”, meaning, “crossroads”.  Here at the center of the oldest college town in the English-speaking world, you’ll find a branch of the Santander Bank. It’s not the sort of place you’d expect a bar fight, leading to a riot.

Except, yeah. It is. Or at least it was.

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Oxford Carfax, NW

In the year 1355, the future bank branch was home to the Swindlestock Tavern, built in 1250. Tuesday, February 10 was a day of celebration, a remembrance of Saint Scholastica, the Roman Catholic Saint and twin sister to Saint Benedict, leader of monks.

A group of priests and students were drinking that night, when someone complained about the wine. Two students, Walter Spryngeheuse and Roger de Chesterfield had words with the tavern keeper, John Croidon.  John responded to their complaints with “stubborn and saucy language” (I love that), whereupon someone hurled a quart pot of the stuff, at his head.  Spryngeheuse and Chesterfield then proceeded to beat up the bartender.

To talk to the locals in any modern college town, is to hear the story of a mixed blessing. Sure there are jobs, and the business is good, just as sure as there is traffic, congestion and the annual invasion, of the Other. The once quiet town becomes the over-crowded scene of rowdy weekends, beer cans and thumping bass. Plato probably experienced the same adversarial relationship or something like it (presumably minus the bass) in 387BC, with the first Academy outside the walls of Athens.

Seems like some things don’t change, all that much.

Back to the Swindlestock Tavern. The riot about to happen, was far from the first.  The thirteenth century had seen a number contretemps between “Towns and Gowns”, in which ninety people were killed.

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The landlord at the Swindlestock was John de Bereford, who just happened to be the Mayor of Oxford.  On the following day, Mayor de Bereford asked University Chancellor Humphrey de Cherlton, to arrest the two students.   Some two hundred undergraduates rushed to Spryngeheuse and Chesterfield’s defense, allegedly assaulting the Mayor, and several others.

The Church bells rang out at St Martin’s, calling the townspeople to arms. The University Church bells at rang in response at St. Mary’s, summoning hordes of students.  What started out with a bar fight the night before, was about to become an all-out riot.

2,000 men flooded in from the countryside, howling as they advanced “Slea, Slea…. Havock, Havock…. Smyte fast, give gode knocks.”

Swindlestock_tavern_plaque.jpegThe Mayor rode to Woodstock to enlist the help of the King.  Back in Oxford, the violence went on for two days, coming to an end on Thursday, February 12.

Townspeople broke into academic halls, beating students and faculty, alike.  By the time it was over, Sixty-three academics and thirty locals, were dead.

The dispute leading to the St. Scholasta’s day riot of 1355 was eventually settled in favor of the University.  The Mayor and the Bailiffs of Oxford were ordered to do penance along with a number of townsfolk, one for each of the slain.  The procession would march bare-headed through the streets of Oxford before attending Mass in memory of the slain.  Then on to the University Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, where the Vice-Chancellor awaited with the Vicar, University Proctors, and the Registrar.  The University delegation was then paid a fine of 5 shillings, three-pence, usually in small coin. A penny for every scholar killed.

This act of contrition continued every February 10 for 470 years until 1825, when the mayor refused to participate.

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Carfax, as seen from St. Martin’s tower

The proverbial hatchet was finally buried on February 10, 1955. A ceremony was held in which the Mayor received an honorary degree, in exchange for which the Vice-Chancellor was made an Honorary Freeman.

It was six-hundred years, to the day. Talk about remembering your history.

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.

February 10, 1920  The Dirt on Baseball

“Part of every pitcher’s job was to dirty up a new ball the moment it was thrown onto the field… They smeared it with dirt, licorice, and tobacco juice; it was deliberately scuffed, sandpapered, scarred… and as it came over the plate, [the ball] was very hard to see.” – Ken Burns, Baseball

Pitcher Max Surkont once said “Baseball was never meant to be taken seriously — if it were, we would play it with a javelin instead of a ball”.  I’m not sure about javelins, but this much I know.  It’s a lot of fun to watch a home run, hit out of the park.

The New York Yankees hit 267 home runs last year, breaking the single-season record held for twenty-one years, by the Seattle Mariners.  But that’s not always how the game was played. The “Hitless Wonders” of the 1906 Chicago White Sox won the World Series with a .230 club batting average. Manager Fielder Jones said “This should prove that leather is mightier than wood”.  Fielder Allison Jones.  That’s the man’s real name.  If that’s not the greatest baseball name ever, it’s gotta be one of the top ten.

1994UpperDeckAllStar44This was the “dead-ball” era of the Major Leagues, an “inside baseball” style relying on stolen bases, hit-and-run plays and, more than anything, speed.

That’s not to say there were no power hitters. In some ways, a triple may be more difficult than a home run, requiring a runner to cover three bases in the face of a defense, still in possession of the ball. Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Owen “Chief” Wilson set a record  36 triples in 1912. “Wahoo” Sam Crawford hit a career record 309 triples in 18 years in Major League Baseball, playing for the Cincinnati Reds and Detroit tigers from 1899 to 1917. 100 years later, it’s unlikely that either record will ever be broken.

In his 1994 television miniseries “Baseball”, Ken Burns explained that “Part of every pitcher’s job was to dirty up a new ball the moment it was thrown onto the field… They smeared it with dirt, licorice, and tobacco juice; it was deliberately scuffed, sandpapered, scarred… and as it came over the plate, [the ball] was very hard to see.”

5565612_origSpitballs lessened the natural friction with a pitcher’s fingers, reducing backspin and causing the ball to drop. Sandpapered, cut or scarred balls tended to “break” to the side of the scuff mark. Balls were rarely replaced in those days.  By the end of a game, the ball was scarred, misshapen and entirely unpredictable.  Major League Baseball outlawed “doctored” pitches on February 10, 1920, though it remained customary to play an entire game with the same ball.

The first ever game to be played “under the lights” was forty years in the past in 1920, but the practice would not be widespread, for another fifteen years.

Late afternoon on August 16, the Cleveland Indians were playing the New York Yankees at the Polo Grounds. Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman took the plate in the top of the 5th, facing “submarine” pitcher Carl Mays.

submarine-425thA submarine pitch is not to be confused with the windmill underhand pitch we see in softball.  Submarine pitchers throw side-arm to under-handed, with upper bodies so low that some scuff their hands on the ground, the ball rising as it approaches the strike zone.

Submarine pitch

It seems Chapman didn’t see it coming. He never moved.  The crack of the ball hitting Ray Chapman’s head was so loud that Mays thought he had hit the end of the bat, fielding the ball and throwing to first for the out. Wally Pipp, the first baseman best known for losing his starting position to Lou Gehrig because of a headache, knew something was wrong. The batter made no effort to run but simply collapsed, slowly dropping to the ground with blood streaming out of his left ear.

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Ray Chapman

29-year-old Ray Chapman had said this was his last year playing ball.  He wanted to spend more time in the family business he had just married into. The man was right.  Raymond Johnson Chapman died 12 hours later, the only player in the history of Major League Baseball, to die from injuries sustained during a game.

The age of one-ball-per-game died with Ray Chapman, and with it the era of the dead ball. The lively ball era, had begun. Batters loved it, but pitchers struggled to come to grips, with all those shiny new balls.

MLB rule #3.01(c) states that “Before the game begins the umpire shall…Receive from the home club a supply of regulation baseballs, the number and make to be certified to the home club by the league president. The umpire shall inspect the baseballs and ensure they are regulation baseballs and that they are properly rubbed so that the gloss is removed. The umpire shall be the sole judge of the fitness of the balls to be used in the game”.

Umpires would “prep” the ball using a mixture of water and dirt from the field, but this resulted in too-soft covers, vulnerable to tampering. Something had to take the shine off the ball without softening the cover.

Philadelphia Athletics third base coach Lena Blackburne took up the challenge in 1938, scouring the riverbanks of New Jersey for just the right mud. Blackburne found his mud hole, describing the stuff as “resembling a cross between chocolate pudding and whipped cold cream”. By his death in the late fifties, Blackburne was selling his “Baseball Rubbing Mud” to every major league ball club in the country, and most minor league teams.

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Philadelphia Athletics coach Lena Blackburne with team owner Cornelius McGillicuddy, better known as “Connie Mack”, Fenway Park

In a world where classified information is kept on personal email servers, there are still some secrets so pinky-swear-double-probation-secret that the truth may Never be known. Among them Facebook “Community Standards” algorithms, the formula for Coca Cola, and the Secret Swamp™, home of Lena Blackburne’s Baseball Rubbing Mud.

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There’s an old joke here on Sunny Cape Cod™, that we have four seasons:  Almost Winter, Winter, Still Winter and Bridge Construction.  As we gaze out on the frozen tundra longing for that first crocus of Spring, one thing is sure. The first pitchers will show up to the first spring training camp, a few short days from now. Every baseball thrown from pre-season to the 2019 World Series, will first be de-glossed with Lena Blackburne’s famous, Baseball Rubbing Mud.

Play Ball!

Go Sox.

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.

February 6, 2007 Animals at War

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

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

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

Fun fact:  Who knew the Vikings had cats!  Norskskogkatt_Evita_3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“First Division Rags”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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H/T Daily Mail

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

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

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H/T Daily Mail

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

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“Tirpitz” the pig

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

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

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

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

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

Downsize_Help Save the Horse to Save the Soldier

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

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

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

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Dickin Medal

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

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

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

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

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

 

February 4, 1936 Radium Girls

“There is no possible excuse for such a delay”, Lippmann wrote. “The women are dying. If ever a case called for prompt adjudication, it is the case of five crippled women who are fighting for a few miserable dollars to ease their last days on earth. This is a heartless proceeding. It is unmanly, unjust and cruel. This is a case which calls not for fine-spun litigation but for simple, quick, direct justice.” Walter Lippmann, New York World

In 1922, a bank teller named Grace Fryer began to feel soreness in her jaw. She was 23 at the time and too young to have her teeth falling out, yet that’s what was happening. Her doctor was able to identify the problem, but couldn’t explain it. Grace Fryer’s jawbones were so honeycombed with holes, they looked like moth eaten fabric.

s13On December 21, 1898, Marie and Pierre Curie discovered the 88th element of the Periodic Table. This new and radioactive element was Radium, one of the ‘alkaline earth metals’.

Curie’s work would make her the first female recipient of a Nobel Prize in 1906, and the only person of either sex to ever win two Nobels, in 1911.

We’ve seen some strange pop culture fads over the years, from goldfish swallowing to pole sitting, but none stranger than the radium craze of 1904.  The stuff was an industrial wonder, a medical cure-all.  Newspapers waxed rhapsodic about cities of the future, streets aglow in the light of radium lamps as smiling restaurant patrons sipped “liquid sunshine”.  Radium plays and dances featured performers, dressed in glow-in-the-dark costumes.  The smiling farmer of the future, tilled glowing fields.  Bartender, I’ll have a Radium Highball.

14wrh8n-Custom1Serious physicians had early success killing cancer cells, driving a quack medicine craze where charlatans sold radium creams, salts and suppositories claiming to to cure everything from impotence to acne to insanity, rickets, tooth decay, and warts.

Unseen at the time, one benefit of the craze was that demand for radium vastly outstripped actual production. Prices skyrocketed to $84,500 per gram by 1915, equivalent to $1.9 million today. Authorities warned consumers to be on the lookout for fake radium, while the business in bogus radium products, soared.

WWI broke out in 1914.  It didn’t take long to recognize the advantages of glow in the dark instruments. Any number of companies stepped up to fill the need, but none larger than US Radium and its glow-in-the-dark paint, “Undark”.

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Hundreds of women worked in US Radium’s Orange New Jersey factory, hand painting the stuff on watches, gun sights and other instruments. Radioactivity levels were so small as to be harmless to users of these objects, but not so to the people who made them.

The harmful effects of radiation were relatively well understood by 1917, though the information was withheld from factory workers. Camel hair brushes tended to splay out with use.  Supervisors encouraged the women to sharpen brushes using lips and tongues for a nice, sharp point. The stuff was odorless and tasteless, and some couldn’t resist the fun of painting nails and even teeth with the luminous paint. The only side effects of all that radium, they were told, would be rosy cheeks.

They were paid eight cents a dial.

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The active ingredient in Undark was a million times more active than Uranium, and company owners and scientists knew it. Company labs were equipped with lead screens, masks and tongs, while literally everything on the factory floor, glowed.

Frances Splettscher died in 1925 at age 21, suffering severe anemia and unbearable toothaches.  At one point a dentist pulled a tooth.  Part of her jaw, came with it.

Doctors began to suspect that Grace Fryer’s condition may be related to her previous employment in US Radium. By that time she was seriously ill, yet Columbia University “Specialist” Frederick Flinn and a “Colleague” pronounced her to be in “fine health”.

Only later were the two revealed to be company executives.

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Grace Fryer

These US Radium guys must have been genuine, mustache twirling, villains. In the early 1920s, company officials hired physiologist and Harvard Professor Cecil Drinker to report on working conditions. Drinker’s report detailed catastrophically dangerous working conditions, with virtually every factory employee suffering serious blood or bone conditions.

The report filed with the New Jersey Department of Labor omitted all of it, describing conditions in glowing terms (pun not intended), claiming that “every girl is in perfect condition”.

UndarkReports of illness among other women came flooding in. US Radium took to assassinating the character of these women, claiming that their symptoms resulted from syphilis.

Attorney Raymond Berry filed suit on Fryer’s behalf in 1927, the lawsuit joined by four other dial painters seeking $250,000 apiece, in damages.

The newspapers dubbed them “radium girls”. The health of all five plaintiffs was deteriorating rapidly, while one stratagem after another was used to delay proceedings. By the first courtroom appearance in January 1928, none could so much as raise her arm, to take the oath. Grace Fryer was altogether toothless by this time, unable to walk and requiring a back brace even to sit up.

One dial painter, Amelia “Mollie” Maggia, died on September 12, 1922.  She was twenty-six.  Mollie’s lower jaw was removed in the last months of her life, the cause of death ruled as syphilis.  Mollie’s dentist wasn’t buying it. Dr. Joseph Knef placed her jawbone on a piece of dental film.  The resulting image showed “absurd” levels of radiation.

Mollie Maggia was exhumed on October 15, 1927 in the presence of six-man teams of doctors and lawyers from both sides, two brothers-in-law and her father, Valerio.  Her bones spoke from beyond the grave, words she herself could no longer say.  To hell with the character assassins, doctors found zero evidence of syphilis.  “Each and every portion of tissue and bone tested”, they said. “gave evidence of radioactivity.”

The radium girls were far too sick to attend the next hearing in April, when the judge ordered a continuation to September, an accommodation to several company witnesses “summering” in Europe.

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Walter Lippmann of the New York World called the proceedings a “Damnable travesty of justice”. “There is no possible excuse for such a delay”, Lippmann wrote. “The women are dying. If ever a case called for prompt adjudication, it is the case of five crippled women who are fighting for a few miserable dollars to ease their last days on earth. This is a heartless proceeding. It is unmanly, unjust and cruel. This is a case which calls not for fine-spun litigation but for simple, quick, direct justice.

Delay was a deliberate and sleazy tactic, and it worked. Plaintiffs accepted a settlement of $10,000 apiece plus legal fees, and a $600 annual annuity.  The deal was mediated by Judge William Clarke, himself a US Radium stockholder. None of the plaintiffs lived long enough to cash more than one or two annuity checks.

Dr. Sabin Arnold von Sochocky, the paint’s inventor, died of aplastic anemia in 1928, a victim of his own creation.  Marie Curie herself was dead by 1934, poisoned by radiation. With a half-life of 1,600 years, her lab notebooks remain too hot to handle, to this day.

Radium was synthesized for the first time two years later, on February 4, 1936.  One would hope that factory workers using the stuff, were no longer encouraged to sharpen their brushes, with their tongues.

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 30, 1752 Founding Philanderer

Not that he could’ve have done anything about it, even if the husband did find out.  Morris walked with a peg, his left leg severed below the knee in a carriage accident, lost while running from an angry husband.

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Midtown Street Grid

To drive the streets of Manhattan is to realize that someone had a plan for this place. You might not be able to get there for the congestion, but you can figure out how to do it. Not like the rabbit warren that is her sister city of Boston, that all but unnavigable melange of neighborhoods, grown together as the city expanded into former marshlands and harbor.

In grade school, we all learned the preamble to the Constitution. “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…” It’s considerably snappier than the original version:

We the people of the states of New-Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New-York, New-Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North-Carolina, South-Carolina, and Georgia, do ordain, declare and establish the following constitution for the government of ourselves and our posterity.”

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That West 53rd leads to East 53rd and runs next to 54th may be attributed to a committee of three, who fought (and won) the battle against the wide circles and grand plazas, once envisioned for “The City”. That we may be spared that stultifying recitation of our founding document may be laid at the feet of one member of that committee.

Today, his life is all but lost to history, among the familiar constellation of founding fathers.  If he’s remembered at all it’s for that funny name.  Gouverneur Morris.  And what a life it was.

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Gouverneur Morris

Gouverneur Morris was born this day in 1752, the son of Lewis Morris, Jr. and his second wife Sarah (Gouverneur) Morris. Abigail Adams informs us the name was pronounced “Governeer”.

Born to a wealthy New York land owning family, Morris was destined to a place among the founders. His half-brother Lewis signed the Declaration of Independence.  Nephew Lewis Richard served in the Vermont legislature and the US Congress.

As a member of the Continental Congress, Morris helped General George Washington secure funding, to keep the Continental Army in the field. A staunch ally of the Commander-in-Chief, Morris defended Washington against the “Conway Cabal“, the only serious effort to have the General unseated, as commander-in-chief.

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Gouverneur Morris 1789

A staunch opponent of slavery, Morris derided the “peculiar institution” as “the curse of heaven on the states where it prevailed.”  Morris mocked the “3/5ths compromise”, that cynical effort to increase congressional representation based on “property”, who had no right to vote.

Upon what principle”, Morris asked, “is it that the slaves shall be computed in the representation? Are they men? Then make them citizens, and let them vote. Are they property? Why, then, is no other property included?”

And did I mention, Gouverneur Morris was a first-class Rake?

“Rake” is such a great word, short for “Rakehell” or Hellraiser’.  It’s a shame it’s fallen out of usage.  This isn’t the tool shed variety.  An 18th century Rake is a man habituated to dissolute conduct, a chronic libertine devoted to wine, women and song.  Emphasis on the Women and, no problem if they just happened to be married.

At a time when sexual attitudes were “buttoned up” to say the least, Gouverneur Morris was all but addicted to sex in public, given over to the excitement, of the risk at being caught.

As Minister Plenipotentiary to France in the wake of the American Revolution, Morris writes of one such dalliance in the hallway at the Louvre, then a Royal Residence.

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Gouverneur Morris’ wooden leg

“Go to the Louvre… we take the Chance of Interruption and celebrate in the Passage while Mademoiselle (the woman’s daughter) is at the Harpsichord in the Drawing Room. The husband is below. Visitors are hourly expected. The Doors are all open.”

“Celebrate” was Morris’ code word for…well…you know.

Not that he could’ve done anything about it, even if the husband did find out.  Morris walked with a peg, his left leg severed below the knee in a carriage accident, lost while running from an angry husband.

That wooden leg actually helped him one time, as the French Revolution spiraled downward toward the homicidal madness  known as the “Reign of Terror“. While riding in a carriage, a sign of the aristocracy, a horde of sans coulotte attempted to seize the vehicle.  It may have cost Morris, his head.  Gouverneur Morris leaned out the window and shook the leg at them, momentarily shocking the mob into stunned silence. Whether the mob thought him a war veteran or just plain crazy is unknown, but the driver had just enough time, to get away.

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18th century painting “A Rake’s Progress”, by English artist William Hogarth

Morris tried to raise enough to bribe the guards, to release King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.  When that didn’t work out he bought the Queen’s furniture, and brought it home as a keepsake.

Morris finally “settled down” at age 57, but even that was a scandal.  That Anne Gary (“Nancy”) Randolph was twenty-two years younger than he was not so unusual, but marrying his housekeeper, was.  Worse still, the blushing bride had become pregnant by her own brother-in-law at age seventeen, and was tried for killing the baby.  On a plantation named “Bizarre’, no less.

Anne was acquitted of the charge of infanticide, but the scandal followed her, all her days.  Morris announced his marriage to her at his Christmas party.  In his diary, Gouverneur writes “I marry this day Anne Gary Randolph. No small surprise to my guests.”

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Whalebone

Toward the end of his life, Gouverneur Morris experienced problems with his urinary tract, probably the result of prostate cancer.  Believing there to be some blockage in his pipes, Morris tried the “Do-it-Yourself” approach to fixing the problem, with a piece of whalebone.

Unsurprisingly, the method caused himself considerable damage and massive infection.  The man who brought the Erie Canal to upstate New York died on November 6, 1813.  Six days later, the Columbian Centinal newspaper of Boston reported his death following “a short but distressing illness.”

I should say so.

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 23, 1795 When Cavalry bagged a Fleet

The history of human conflict is hardly a subject for humor, yet there are times when the irony rises from the ridiculous, to the sublime.

The study of warfare has rarely been a source of great mirth.  The history of human conflict is hardly a subject for humor, yet there are times when the irony rises from the ridiculous, to the sublime.

Confederate raider John Singleton Mosby, the “Grey Ghost“, once bagged Union General Edwin Stoughton while dead asleep, lifting the General’s nightshirt and slapping his bare ass, with a sword. Mosby and his 29 raiders made off with the Union General, two Captains, 30 enlisted men and 58 horses, without firing a shot. When the President heard the story, Lincoln lamented: “I can make another Brigadier in 5 minutes, but I can’t replace those horses”.

The Wonderful Story of France: Massacre of the Sicilian VespersIn the middle ages, a French soldier once saw fit to mouth off to an Italian woman on her way home from church, causing France to lose Sicily, to Spain.

At least one WWI battle was called off, on account of an amphibious landing force being attacked, by bees.

The same occurred outside Okalana, Arkansas on April 3, 1864. Union and Confederate troops got into it in a pecan orchard, overturning several hives of honeybees, in the process. If victory goes to he who holds the ground after the battle, this one must go neither to Blue nor Butternut, but to the bugs. Brave soldiers all, no doubt, prepared to take a bullet. But not a bee sting.

120,000 Chinese troops poured into North Korea between November 27 and December 13 1950, overwhelming 20,000 American and United Nations forces at the Chosin Reservoir.  Desperately low on ammunition, one Marine Corps mortar division called in re-supply, by parachute.  The battle of the “Frozen Chosin” might have ended differently, had some supply clerk understood the code-name for mortar shells was “Tootsie Rolls”.  As it was, the guy sent candy into the combat zone.  At least those Marines had something to eat, as they broke their encirclement and headed south.

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Speaking of sweet stuff.  Had the Romans of 48BC brushed up on their Xenophon, the Mithradatic wars may have ended sooner.  Roman troops pigged out on “Mad Honey” left for them by fleeing Persians, and were too stoned to defend themselves when they came back.  A thousand or more Romans were slaughtered, with few losses to the other side.  All of that, for a little taste of honey.

mel brooksIn 585BC, the battle between the Medes and Lydians was stopped in its tracks, on account of a solar eclipse.  In the 3rd Mithradatic War of 76-63BC, a meteor was enough to do the trick.

Who can forget that WW2 bomb disposal tech, Melvin Kaminsky.  Hearing German soldiers singing a beer hall song, Kaminsky grabbed a bullhorn and serenaded them back, crooning out an old tune that Al Jolson used to sing, in black face:  “Toot Toot Tootsie, Goodbye”.  After he was done, polite applause could be heard, drifting across the river.  In all military history, there may be one soldier who’d even think about entertaining his adversary.  Melvin Kaminsky did it.   We remember him today, as Mel Brooks.

zuiderzeeSo, yes, there is irony when men make war, if not always humor.  Yet, in all the annals of warfare, there may be no episode more amusing, than the time a naval force was defeated by men on horseback.

In early 1793, Austria, Prussia, Spain, Great Britain and the Dutch Republic formed the first of seven coalitions to oppose the French Republic.

France declared war on its neighbor to the north.  By the end of the following year, many of Holland’s provinces as well as those of the Austrian Netherlands, were overrun.

The winter of 1794-95 was brutally cold.  A number of Dutch ships sought shelter near the North Sea village of den Helder, becoming icebound near the mouth of a shallow bay called the Zuiderzee.

General Johan Willem de Winter, a former Dutch naval officer, had been in service to the Grande Armée since 1787.  On the night of January 23, de Winter arrived at the head of a regiment of “hussars”, the French light cavalry.  The following morning, a number of horsemen rode out over the ice to the Dutch ship-of-the-line “Admiraal Piet Heyn”, demanding its surrender.   The surgeon aboard another ship, the “Snelheid”, blithely wrote “On Saturday morning, my servant informed me that a French hussar stood near our ship. I looked out my porthole, and indeed, there stood an hussar.”

capture of the dutch fleet at den helder

This was a significant part of the Dutch fleet, 15 ships, 11 of which were manned and seaworthy.  The whole thing was now in the hands of French cavalry.

At least one source will tell you the event never occurred, or at least it’s embellished , as retold by the hussars themselves.   I guess you can take your pick.  A number of 19th century authors have portrayed the episode as unvarnished history, as have any number of paintings and sketches.

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In February 1846, French Lieutenant-General Baron Lahure published a letter in the newspaper “Echo de la Frontière”, describing the event:

“I departed immediately with a company of tirailleurs in wagons and a squadron of light cavalry; before dawn I had taken position in the dunes. When the ships saw us, they prepared their defences. I sent some tirailleurs ahead, and followed with the rest of my forces. The fleet was taken. The sailors received us ‘de bonne grace’ on board… This is the true story of the capture of the Dutch fleet, devised and executed by a 23 year old Chef de Bataillion”.

Archibald Gordon Macdonell included the episode in his 1934 “Napoleon and his Marshals”.  It’s one of those stories that I Want to be true, even if it isn’t.  “(When) the ragged men” Macdonell  wrote, “thundered on their horses across the ice to capture with naked swords the battlefleet of Holland”.  The only time in recorded history, a naval fleet was captured by a cavalry charge.

frozen fleet

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.