January 10, 1927 Poison Hooch

It’s a crazy, mixed up world full of nut job conspiracy theories. This is not one of those.

prohibition3The Eighteenth Amendment establishing the national prohibition of “intoxicating liquors” was passed out of Congress on December 17, 1917 and sent to the states, for ratification. The National Prohibition or “Volstead” act, so named for Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Andrew Volstead, was enacted to carry out its intent.

At last ratified in January 1919, “Prohibition” went into effect at midnight, January 16, 1920. For thirteen years, it was illegal to import, export, transport or sell liquor, wine or beer in the United States.

“Industrial alcohol” such as solvents, polishes and fuels were “denatured” and rendered unpalatable by the addition of dyes and chemicals.  The problem was, it wasn’t long before bootleggers figured out how to “renature” the stuff. The Treasury Department, in charge of enforcement at that time, estimated that over 60 million gallons of industrial alcohol were stolen during Prohibition.

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War-propaganda

Not to be defied, the government upped the ante. By the end of 1926, denaturing processes were reformulated with the introduction of known poisons such as kerosene, gasoline, iodine, zinc, nicotine, formaldehyde, chloroform, camphor, quinine and acetone. Better still, Treasury officials required no less than 10% by volume of methanol, a virulent toxin used in anti-freeze.

You can renature all you want. that stuff isn’t coming out.

On Christmas eve 1926, sixty people wound up at New York’s Bellevue Hospital, desperately ill from contaminated alcohol. Eight of them died. Two days later the death toll was thirty-one. By New Year’s Day the number had soared to 400, with no end in sight.

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A copper still and bucket, like those used in the creation and renaturing of alcohol at home. H’T allthatsinteresting.com, and Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

Many who didn’t die, may have wished it. Drinkers experienced hallucinations, uncontrollable vomiting, even blindness.

In its January 10, 1927 issue, TIME Magazine reported  a doubling in toxicity levels, from the new method:  “The new formula included “4 parts methanol (wood alcohol), 2.25 parts pyridine bases, 0.5 parts benzene to 100 parts ethyl alcohol” and, as TIME noted, “Three ordinary drinks of this may cause blindness. (In case you didn’t guess, “blind drink” isn’t just a figure of speech.)”

New York medical examiner Charles Norris was quick to understand the problem, and organized a press conference to warn of the danger. “The government knows it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol,” he said. “Yet it continues its poisoning processes, heedless of the fact that people determined to drink are daily absorbing that poison. Knowing this to be true, the United States government must be charged with the moral responsibility for the deaths that poisoned liquor causes, although it cannot be held legally responsible.”

Norris pointed out that the poorest people of the city, were most likely to be victims: “Those who cannot afford expensive protection and deal in low-grade stuff”.

The towering sanctimony of the other side, is hard to believe.  Teetotalers argued that the dead had “brought it on themselves”. Long-time leader of the anti-saloon league Wayne B. Wheeler claimed “The Government is under no obligation to furnish the people with alcohol that is drinkable when the Constitution prohibits it. The person who drinks this industrial alcohol is a deliberate suicide.”

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In the thirteen years of its existence, Prohibition was an unmitigated disaster.  Portable stills went on sale within a week of enactment, and organized smuggling was quick to follow. California grape growers increased acreage by over 700% over the first five years, selling dry blocks of grapes as “bricks of rhine” or “blocks of port”. The mayor of New York City sent instructions to his constituents, on how to make wine.

Smuggling operations became widespread, as cars were souped up to outrun “the law”. This would lead to competitive car racing, beginning first on the streets and back roads and later moving to dedicated race tracks. It’s why we have NASCAR, today.

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Organized crime became vastly more powerful due to the influx of enormous sums of cash. The corruption of public officials was a national scandal.

Gaining convictions for breaking a law that everyone hated became increasingly difficult. The first 4,000 prohibition-related arrests resulted in only six convictions, and not one jail sentence.

It’s hard to compare alcohol consumption rates before and during prohibition but, if death by cirrhosis of the liver is any indication, alcohol consumption wasn’t reduced by any more than 10 to 20 per cent.

In the end, even John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a lifelong teetotaler who contributed $350,000 to the Anti-Saloon League, had to announce his support for repeal.

On December 5, 1933, Utah became the 36th state to ratify the Twenty-first Amendment, repealing the Eighteenth and voiding the Volstead Act, returning control over alcohol policy to the states.

Federal officials continued to poison industrial alcohol until the very end, resulting in the death of some 10,000 citizens.   They didn’t even pretend not to know, what was happening.  Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Seymour Lowman may have had the last word, among those who would say “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help”.  Lowman opined that, if deliberately poisoned alcohol resulted in a more sober nation, then “a good job will have been done.”

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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January 8, 1835 When the Dollar Dies

You’ve worked all your life. You’ve supported your family, paid your taxes, and met your every obligation. You even managed to put a few bucks aside, in hopes of a long and happy retirement. What happens to that retirement “nest egg”, when the cost of the coffee in your hand doubles in the time it takes to drink it?

You’ve worked all your life. You’ve supported your family, paid your taxes, and met your every obligation. You’ve even managed to put a few bucks aside, in hopes of a long and happy retirement.

The subject of currency devaluation is normally left to eggheads and academics, the very term sufficient to make most of us tip over and hit our heads on the floor, from boredom. But, what happens to that “nest egg”, when the cost of the coffee in your hand doubles in the time it takes to drink it?

History records 58 such instances of hyperinflation. The economic train wreck socialism has wrought on Venezuela, constitutes #59. This in a country with the largest proven oil reserves on the planet.

In antiquity, Roman law required a high silver content in the coinage of the realm. Precious metal made the coins themselves objects of value. The Roman economy remained relatively stable for 500 years. Republic morphed into Empire over the 1st century BC, leading to a conga line of Emperors minting mountains of coins in their own likeness. Slaves were worked to death in Spanish silver mines. Birds fell from the sky over vast smelting fires, yet there was never enough to go around. Silver content was inexorably reduced until the currency itself collapsed in the 3rd century reign of Diocletian.

An Empire and its citizens were left to barter as best they could, in a world where money had no value.

The assistance of French King Louis XIV was invaluable to Revolution-era Americans, at a time when colonial inflation rates approached 50% per month. Even so, French state income was only about 357 million livres at that time, with expenses exceeding one-half Billion.

France descended into a Revolution of its own, in the wake of the American conflict. The government printed “assignat”, notes purportedly backed by 4 billion livres in property expropriated form the church. 912 million livres were in circulation in 1791, rising to nearly 46 billion in 1796.

One historian described the economic policy of the leftist radicals behind the Reign of Terror: “The attitude of the Jacobins about finances can be quite simply stated as an utter exhaustion of the present at the expense of the future”.

Somehow, that sounds familiar.

Paper money crashed in the post-Revolutionary Articles of Confederation period as well, when you could buy a live sheep for two silver dollars, or 150 “Continental” (paper) dollars.

Roles reversed and creditors hid from debtors, not wanting to be repaid in worthless scrip. Generations after our founding, a thing could be described as worthless as “Not worth a Continental”.

Germany was a prosperous country in 1914, with a gold-backed currency and thriving industries in optics, chemicals and machinery. The Deutsche Mark had approximately equal value with the British shilling, the French Franc and the Italian Lira, with an exchange rate of four or five to the dollar.

That was then.

While the French third Republic levied an income tax to pay for the “Great War”, the Kaiser suspended the gold standard and fought the war on credit, believing he’d get it back from conquered territories.

Except, Germany lost. The “Carthaginian peace” described by British economist John Maynard Keynes saddled an economy already massively burdened by war debt, with reparations. Children built ‘forts’ with bundles of hyperinflated, worthless marks. Women fed banknotes into wood stoves, while men papered walls with them. By November 1923, one US dollar bought 4,210,500,000,000 German marks.

The despair of the ‘Weimar Republic’ period resulted in massive political instability, providing rich soil for the growth of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, of Adolf Hitler.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was also on the losing side, and broken up after the war. Lacking the governmental structures of more established states, a newly independent Hungary began to experience inflation. Before the war, one US Dollar bought you 5 Kronen. In 1924, it was 70,000. Hungary replaced the Kronen with the Pengö in 1926, pegged to a rate of 12,500/1.

Hungary became a battleground in the latter stages of WW2, between the military forces of Nazi Germany and those of the USSR. 90% of Hungarian industrial capacity was damaged, half destroyed altogether. Transportation became difficult with most of the nation’s rail capacity, damaged or destroyed. What remained was either carted off to Germany, or seized by the Russians as reparations.

The loss of all that productive capacity resulted in scarcity of goods, and prices began to rise. The government responded by printing money. Total currency in circulation in July 1945 stood at 25 Billion Pengö. Money supply rose to 1.65 Trillion by January, 65 Quadrillion that Spring and 47 Septillion, in July. That’s a Trillion Trillion. Twenty-four zeroes.

Banks received low rate loans, so that money could be loaned to companies to rebuild. The government hired workers directly, giving out loans to others and in many cases, outright grants. The country was flooded with money, the stuff virtually grew on trees, but there was nothing to back it up.

Inflation approached escape velocity. The item that cost you 379 Pengö in September 1945, cost 1,872,910 by March, 35,790,276 in April, and 862 Billion in June. Inflation neared 150,000% per day, making the currency all but worthless. Massive printing of money accomplished the cube root of zero. The worst hyperinflation in history peaked in 1946, when the item that cost you 379 Pengö last September, now cost 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

The government responded by changing the name, and the color, of the currency. The Pengö was replaced by the Milpengö (1,000,000 Pengö), which was replaced by the Bilpengö (1,000,000,000,000), and finally by the (supposedly) inflation-indexed Adopengö. This spiral resulted in the largest denominated note in history, the Milliard Bilpengö. A Billion Trillion Pengö.

The thing was worth twelve cents.

One more replacement and all that Keynesian largesse would finally stabilize the currency, but at what price? Real wages were reduced by 80% and creditors wiped out. The fate of the nation was sealed when communists seized power in 1949. Hungarians could now share in that old Soviet joke. “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work”.

The ten worst hyperinflations in history occurred during the 20th century, including Zimbabwe in 2008, Yugoslavia 1994, Germany 1923, Greece 1944, Poland 1921, Mexico 1982, Brazil 1994, Argentina 1981, and Taiwan 1949. The common denominator in all ten were massive government debt and a currency with no inherent value, excepting what a willing buyer and a willing seller agreed it was worth.

In 2015, Boston University economist Laurence Kotlikoff testified before the Senate Budget Committee. “The first point I want to get across” he said, “is that our nation is broke. Our nation’s broke, and it’s not broke in 75 years or 50 years or 25 years or 10 years. It’s broke today”. Kotlikoff went on to describe a “fiscal gap”, the difference between US’ projected revenue, and the obligations our government has saddled us with. “We have a $210 trillion fiscal gap at this point”. Nearly twelve times GDP – the sum total of all goods and services produced in the United States.

American public debt hit zero for the first and only time in history on this day in 1835. The number now approaches twenty-two Trillion, more than the combined GDP of the bottom 174 nations, on earth. All that, in a currency unmoored from anything of objective value. What could go wrong?

December 20, 1871 Honey, I Sold the Jail

It’s hard to know who first used the term, ‘insensate obstinacy’.  Churchill once described Stalin thus. Seems like the description could be applied to certain characters in this tale, as well.

The tracks reached Harvard Nebraska on December 20, 1871, the next town after Grafton and one of a series named in alphabetical order, connected by the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad.

There’s a lot of history in Harvard Nebraska. Nine months after the American entry into WW2, the town became home to a satellite Army Airfield, just outside of town. Twenty-six bombardment squadrons trained up at Harvard AAF, complete with five hangars performing air frame and engine repairs for B-17, B-24 and B-29 bombers. There were 6,000 officers and men there, at it’s peak.

In August 1943, the town was scene to a tragic midair collision between three B-17 bombers, killing fourteen and raining debris across Nebraska farms.

220px-Victory-gardenOn a lighter note, town government sold the jail once. To a sixteen-year-old kid. For a buck and a half and he sold it to a dummy, but now I’m getting ahead of the story.

“War gardens” or “food gardens for defense” were a staple part of the home front for combatants on both sides, of two world wars. Fruits and vegetables were planted on private properties and public parks as a way to boost civic morale, while supplementing wartime ration cards and taking pressure off public food supplies. George Washington Carver called them “Victory Gardens”.

In 1943, Robert Pinckney was the sixteen-year-old son of a local physician. The boy was looking for lots he could use for victory gardens, when he noticed that someone at Town Hall, had goofed. The two-cell jail was listed among properties for sale. They laughed at him at the office, when he showed them their mistake.   So he bought it.  For $1.50.

It’s hard to know who first used the term, ‘insensate obstinacy’.  Winston Churchill once described Stalin thus. Seems like the description could be applied to certain characters in this tale, as well.

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Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, 1947

Even after Pinckney received the deed, town officials continued to house their criminals, in his jail house. The boy retained an attorney and attempted to sue for rent owed, only to be met with petty and vindictive measures by town employees who even now, refused to admit their mistake. He could get rent, but he had to pull up the sidewalk, first. Pinckney offered to sell the property back to the town but he couldn’t enter into a contract, because he was too young.  He couldn’t deed the place over, until he turned 21.

Town government tried to keep the embarrassment under wraps, until Time magazine got hold of it and the story became national news.

A wounded sailor recovering in Los Angeles, suggested the boy put the property up for a war bonds auction. That he did, and Charlie McCarthy, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s famous wooden dummy, bought the jail for $10,000, in war bonds.

After a while, the publicity died down.  Bergen’s dummy quietly deeded the jail back, to the town.  You can still find it there, at 151-185 West Oak Street, Harvard, Clay County, Nebraska.  It’s a small place.  Just take the main road, you can’t miss it.  A glittering monument to teenage enterprise.  And the insensate obstinacy, of government.

Feature image, top of page:  Harvard Nebraska jailhouse, once sold for $1.50, to a sixteen year old kid.

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 9, 1952 Gasping for Air

When such a weather system occurs over areas with high levels of atmospheric contaminants, the resulting ground fog can be catastrophic. 63 people perished during a similar episode in 1930, in the Meuse River Valley area of Belgium. In 1950, 22 people were killed in Poza Rica, Mexico. In 1952, the infamous “Great Smog of London” claimed the lives of thousands, over a course of five days.

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“Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger delivers a speech during the opening of COP24 UN Climate Change Conference 2018 in Katowice, Poland, Monday, Dec. 3, 2018.
Czarek Sokolowski / AP” H/T CBS News, Inc.

Last week, climate activists and world leaders gathered in Poland to discuss carbon pollution resulting from the use of fossil fuels, and ways to combat what they see as a future of anthropogenic global warming.

Adherents to current climate change theories hold onto such ideas with a fervor bordering on the religious while skeptics raise any number of questions but, one thing is certain. There was a time when the air and water around us was tainted with impunity, with sometimes deadly results.

In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland Ohio caught fire, resulting in property damage worth $100,000, equivalent to nearly $700,000, today. The fire resulted in important strategies to clean up the river, but this wasn’t the first such fire. The Cuyahoga wasn’t even the first river to catch fire. There were at least thirteen such incidents on the Cuyahoga, the first occurring in 1868. The Rouge River in Michigan caught fire in the area around Detroit in 1969, and a welder’s torch lit up the Buffalo River in New York, the year before. The Schuylkill River in Philadelphia caught fire from a match tossed into the water, in 1892.

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Cuyahoga River burning, in 1952. H/T Getty Images

Today, the coal silts, oil and chemical contaminants at the heart of these episodes are largely under control in the developed world, but not the world over. One section of Meiyu River in Wenzhou, Zhejiang China burst into flame in the early morning of March 5, 2014. Toxic chemical pollution and other garbage dumped into Bellandur Lake in Bangalore India resulted in part of the lake catching fire the following year, the fire spreading to the nearby Sun City apartments.

If you happen to visit the “Iron City”, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, photographs may be found of streetlights turned on in the middle of the day. In November 1939, St. Louis brought a new meaning to the term “Black Tuesday”, when photographs of the Federal building at Twelfth Boulevard and Market Street show the sun little more than a “pale lemon disk” and streetlights on at 9:00 in the morning.

Federal Building, St. Louis
Federal Building, St. Louis

Air pollution turned deadly in the early morning hours of October 26, 1948 when an atmospheric inversion trapped flourine gases over Donora Pennsylvania, home of US Steel Corporation’s Donora Zinc Works and American Steel and Wire. By the 29th, the inversion had trapped so much grime that spectators gathered to watch a high school football game, couldn’t see the kids on the field. The “Death Fog” hung over Donora for four days, killing 22 and putting half the town, in the hospital.

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Donora Smog at Midday with streetlights on. H/T Donora Historical Society

The Donora episode was caused by an “anticyclone”, a weather event in which a large high pressure front draws air down through the system and out in a clockwise motion.

When such a weather system occurs over areas with high levels of atmospheric contaminants, the resulting ground fog can be catastrophic. 63 people perished during a similar episode in 1930, in the Meuse River Valley area of Belgium. In 1950, 22 people were killed in Poza Rica, Mexico. In 1952, the infamous “Great Smog of London” claimed the lives of thousands, over a course of five days.

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Nelson’s Column during the Great Smog of 1952

On December 5, a body of cold, stagnant air descended over a near-windless London, trapped under a “lid” of warm air. London had suffered poor air quality since the 13th century and airborne pollutants had combined to create “pea soupers” in the past, but this was unlike anything in living memory. The smoke from home and industrial chimneys and other pollutants such as sulphur dioxide combined with automobile exhaust, with nowhere to go.

Yellow-black particles of the stuff built and accumulated at an unprecedented rate. Visibility was down to a meter and driving all but impossible. Public transportation shut down, requiring those rendered sick by the fog, to transport themselves to the hospital.  Outdoor sporting events were canceled and even indoor air quality, was affected.  Weather conditions held until December 9, when the fog dispersed.

hith-london-fog-2660357-ABThere was no panic, Londoners are quite accustomed to the fog, but this one was different. Over the weeks that followed, public health authorities estimated that 4,000 people had died as a direct result of the smog by December 8, and another 100,000 made permanently ill. Research pointed to another 6,000 losing their lives in the following months, as a result of the event.

More recently, research puts the death toll of the Great Smog at 12,000.

A similar event took place about ten years later in December 1962, but without the same lethal impact. A spate of environmental legislation in the wake of the 1952 disaster began to remove black smoke from chimneys.  Financial incentives moved homeowners away from open coal fires toward less polluting alternatives such as gas or oil, or less polluting coke.

Today, the wealthier, developed nations have made great strides toward improvement in air and water quality, though problems persist in the developing world.  In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that:

“[B]etween 1980 and 2017, gross domestic product increased 165 percent, vehicle miles traveled increased 110 percent, energy consumption increased 25 percent, and U.S. population grew by 44 percent. During the same time period, total emissions of the six principal air pollutants dropped by 67 percent”.

The same report shows that, during the same period, CO2 emissions have increased by 12 percent.  Policy makers continue to wrangle with the long-term effects of carbon.  Now, it’s hard to separate the politics from the science.

While politicians and climate activists jet around the planet to devise trillion dollar “solutions”, let us hope that cooler heads than that of Arnold Schwarzenegger, prevail.  There is scarcely a man, woman or child among us who do not want clean air and clean water, and a beautiful, natural environment around us, for ourselves and our posterity.  It’s only a matter of how we get there.

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

December 5, 63BC The Catiline Conspiracy

Lucius Sergius Catilina was a Roman Senator, best remembered for his attempt to overthrow the Republic. In particular the power of the aristocratic Senate. He seems to have been an unsavory character, having murdered first his brother in law and later his own wife, before being tried for adultery with a vestal virgin.

Following the overthrow of the  Monarchy in 509BC, the Rome of antiquity governed itself, as a Republic. The government was headed by two consuls, annually elected by the citizens and advised by a Senate. The Republic operated on a separation of powers principle, with checks and balances and a strong aversion to the concentration of power. Except in times of national emergency, no single individual was allowed to wield absolute power over his fellow citizens.

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A series of civil wars and other events took place during the first century BC, ending the republican period and leaving in its wake an Imperium, best remembered for its conga line of dictators.

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Lucius Sergius Catilina

Lucius Sergius Catilina was a Roman Senator during this period, best remembered for his attempt to overthrow the Republic. In particular the power of the aristocratic Senate. He seems to have been an unsavory character, having murdered first his brother in law and later his own wife, before being tried for adultery with a vestal virgin.

Catilina’s second wife, the formidable Aurelia Orestilla, reputedly murdered the Senator’s grown son, for objecting to the match.  The American political commentator and Rutgers professor Leonard A. Cole once said “You are not responsible for what your friends do, but you will be judged by the company you keep“. Seems about right, to me.

The first of two conspiracies bearing his name began in 65BC. Catilina was supposed to have conspired to murder a number of Senators on their entering office, and making himself, Consul. He may or may not have been involved at this stage, but he certainly would be for the second.

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H/T zbrushcentral.com for this astonishing representation, of the second wife of Catilina

In 63BC, Catilina and a group of heavily indebted aristocrats concocted a plan with a number of disaffected veterans, to overthrow the Republic. On the night of October 18, Crassus brought letters to Consul Marcus Tullius Cicero warning of the plot. Cicero read the letters in the Senate the following day, later giving a series of four speeches: the Catiline Orations, considered by many to be his best political oratory.

In his last speech, delivered in the Temple of Concordia on December 5, 63BC, Cicero established a basis for other speakers to take up the cause. As Consul, Cicero was not allowed to voice an opinion on the execution of conspirators, but this speech laid the groundwork for others to do so, primarily Cato the Younger.

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The actual Senate debates are lost to history, leaving only Cicero’s four orations, but there was considerable resistance in the Senate to executing the conspirators. They were, after all, fellow aristocrats.

Armed forces of the conspirators were ambushed at the Milvian Bridge, where the Via Flaminia crosses the Tiber River. The rest were executed by the end of December. Cicero’s actions had saved the Republic. For now.

history-catalineAt one point during this period, then-Senator Julius Caesar stepped to the rostrum to have his say. He was handed a paper and, reading it, stuck the note in his toga and resumed his speech. Cato, Caesar’s implacable foe, stood in the senate and demanded that Caesar read the note. It’s nothing, replied the future emperor, but Cato thought he had caught the hated Caesar red handed. “I demand you read that note”, he said, or words to that effect. He wouldn’t let it go.

Finally, Caesar relented. With an actor’s timing, he pulled out the note and read it to a hushed senate.  It turned out to be a love letter, a graphic one, wherein Servilia Caepionis described in detail what she wanted to do with Caesar when she got him alone. As if the scene wasn’t bad enough, Servilia just happened to be Cato’s half-sister.

Here’s where the story becomes very interesting. Caesar was a well-known lady’s man. By the time of his assassination, the Emperor had carried on with Servilia Caepionis, for years. Servilia had a son, called Marcus Brutus. He was 41 on the 15th of March, 44BC. The “Ides of March”. Caesar was 56. The Emperor’s dying words are supposed to have been “Et tu, Brute?”, as Brutus plunged the dagger in. “And you, Brutus?” But that’s not what he said. Those words were put in his mouth 1,643 years later, by William Shakespeare.

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Ciaran Hinds plays Julius Caesar in the series Rome

Eyewitness accounts to Caesar’s last words are lost to history, but more contemporary sources recorded his dying words to be “Kai su, Teknon?” In Greek, it means “And you, my child?”

It seems unlikely that Brutus murdered his own father on the Ides of March.  The dates don’t seem to work out. Still, it makes you wonder…

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

November 26, 1783 Franksgiving

In 1941, a Commerce Department survey demonstrated little difference in Christmas sales between those states observing Franksgiving, and those observing the more traditional date. To this day, the years 1939, ’40 and ’41 remain the only outliers, outside the fourth-Thursday tradition.

The first Autumn feast of Thanksgiving dates well before the European settlement of North America.

OldCrowafriendlyHistorian Michael Gannon writes that the “real first Thanksgiving” in America took place in 1565, when Pedro Menéndez de Avilés landed in modern-day Florida, and “had the Indians fed and then dined himself.” Likely, it was salt-pork stew with garbanzo beans. Yum.

According to the Library of Congress, the English colony of Popham in present-day Maine held a “harvest feast and prayer meeting” with the Abenaki people in 1607, twenty-four years before that “first Thanksgiving” at Plymouth.

George Washington proclaimed the first Presidential National day of Thanksgiving on November 26, 1783, “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness“.

So much for separation of Church and state.

President Abraham Lincoln followed suit in 1863, declaring a general day of Thanksgiving to be observed on the last Thursday of November.  The date seemed to work out OK and the tradition stuck, until 1939.

Roughly two in every seven Novembers, contain an extra Thursday.  November 1939, was one of them.

franksgiving2In those days, it was considered poor form for retailers to put up Christmas displays or run Christmas sales, before Thanksgiving.  Lew Hahn, General Manager of the Retail Dry Goods Association, was afraid that extra week was going to cut into Christmas sales.

Ten years into the Great Depression with no end in sight, the Federal government was afraid of the same thing. By late August, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt decided to deviate from the customary last Thursday, and declared the fourth Thursday, November 23, to be a national day of prayer and thanksgiving.

Opposition to the plan was quick in forming.  Alf Landon, Roosevelt’s Republican challenger in the earlier election, complained of Roosevelt’s impulsiveness, and resulting confusion.  “More time should have been taken working it out” Landon said, “instead of springing it upon an unprepared country with the omnipotence of a Hitler.”

252_84_738_450In Plymouth Massachusetts, self-described home of the “first Thanksgiving”, Chairman of the Board of Selectmen James Frasier, “heartily disapproved”.

The short-notice change in schedule disrupted vacation plans for millions of Americans, to say nothing of traditional Thanksgiving day football rivalries between high school and college teams, across the nation.

Unsurprisingly, support for Roosevelt’s plan split across ideological lines.  A late 1939 Gallup poll reported Democrats favoring the move by a 52% to 48% majority, with Republicans opposing it by 79% to 21%.

Such proclamations represent little more than the “’moral authority” of the Presidency, and states are free to do as they please.  Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia observed Thanksgiving day on the non-traditional date, and twenty-two kept Thanksgiving on the 30th.  Colorado, Mississippi and Texas, did both.

The next two years, thirty-two states and the District of Columbia celebrated what came to be called “Franksgiving” on the third Thursday of the month, while the remainder observed a more traditional “Republican Thanksgiving” on the last.

Franksgiving calendar

In 1941, a Commerce Department survey demonstrated little difference in Christmas sales between those states observing Franksgiving, and those observing the more traditional date.  A joint resolution of Congress declared the fourth Thursday beginning the following year to be a national day of Thanksgiving.  President Roosevelt signed the measure into law on November 26.

Interestingly, the phrase “Thanksgiving Day” had appeared only once in the 20th century prior to the 1941 resolution, that in President Calvin Coolidge’s first of six such proclamations.

Most state legislatures followed suit with the Federal fourth-Thursday approach, but not all.  In 1945, the next year with five November Thursdays, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Nebraska, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia reverted to the last Thursday.  Texas held out the longest, celebrating its fifth-Thursday Thanksgiving for the last time in 1956.

To this day, the years 1939, ’40 and ’41 remain the only outliers, outside the fourth-Thursday tradition.

Popular comedians of the day got a lot of laughs out of it, including Burns & Allen and Jack Benny.  One 1940 Warner Brothers cartoon shows two Thanksgivings, one “for Democrats” and one a week later “for Republicans.”

The Three Stooges short film of the same year has Moe questioning Curly, why he put the fourth of July in October.  “You never can tell”, he replies.  “Look what they did to Thanksgiving!”

Joe Toye, the “Easy Company” character in the 2001 HBO miniseries “A Band of Brothers”, may have had the last word on Franksgiving.  Explaining his plan to get the war over quickly, the paratrooper quips “Hitler gets one of these [knives] right across the windpipe, Roosevelt changes Thanksgiving to Joe Toye Day, [and] pays me ten grand a year for the rest of my f*****g life.

Sounds like a plan.

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November 23, 1932 Holodomor

“I must have looked unbelieving at this, for a tall, gaunt woman started to take the children’s clothes off. She undressed them one by one, prodded their sagging bellies, pointed to their spindly legs, ran her hand up and down their tortured, mis-shapen, twisted little bodies to make me understand that this was real famine”.

In 1928, Josef Stalin introduced a program of agricultural collectivization in Ukraine, the “Bread Basket” of the Soviet Union, forcing family farmers off their land and into state-owned collective farms.

Ukrainian “kulaks”, peasant farmers successful enough to hire labor or own farm machinery, refused to join the collectives, regarding them as a return to the serfdom of earlier centuries. Stalin claimed that these factory collectives would not only feed industrial workers in the cities, but would also provide a surplus to be sold abroad, raising money to further his industrialization plans.

Armed dekulakization brigades confiscated land, livestock and other property by force, evicting entire families. Almost half a million individuals were dragged from their homes in 1930-’31, packed into freight trains and shipped off to remote areas like Siberia and often left without food or shelter. Many of them, especially children, died in transit or soon after arrival.

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Resistance continued, which the Soviet government could not abide. Ukraine’s production quotas were sharply increased in 1932-’33, making it impossible for farmers to meet assignments and feed themselves, at the same time. Starvation became widespread, as the Soviet government decreed that any person, even a child, would be arrested for taking as little as a few stalks of wheat from the fields in which they worked.

Military blockades were erected around villages preventing the transportation of food, while brigades of young activists from other regions were brought in to sweep through villages and confiscate hidden grain.

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Eventually all food was confiscated from farmers’ homes, as Stalin determined to “teach a lesson through famine” to the Ukrainian rural population.

At the height of the famine, Ukrainians starved to death at a rate of 22,000 per day, almost a third of those, children 10 and under.  How many died in total, is anyone’s guess.  Estimates range from two million Ukrainian citizens murdered by their own government, to well over ten million.

Millions of tons of grain were exported during this time, more than enough to save every man, woman and child.

2,500 people were arrested and convicted during this time, for eating the flesh of their neighbors. The problem was so widespread that the Soviet government put up signs reminding survivors: “To eat your own children is a barbarian act.”

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Stalin denied to the world that there was any famine in Ukraine, a position supported by the likes of Louis Fischer reporting for “The Nation”, and Walter Duranty of the New York Times. Duranty went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for his “coverage”, with comments like “any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda”.  Such stories were “mostly bunk,” according to the Times.  Duranty even commented that “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”

To this day, the New York Times has failed to repudiate Walter Duranty’s Pulitzer.

Like many on the international Left, Canadian journalist Rhea Clyman had great expectations of the “worker’s paradise” built by the Communist state, where no one was unemployed, everyone was “equal”, and Everyman had what he needed. Unlike most, Clyman went to the Soviet Union, to see for herself.

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To do so at all was an act of courage: a single Jewish woman who’d lost part of a leg in a childhood streetcar accident, traveling to a place where the Russian empire and its successor state had a long and wretched history, when it came to the treatment of its own Jews.

Virtually all of the international press preferred the comfortable confines of Moscow, cosseted in the heart of the Soviet propaganda machine and ignorant of the world as it was.

In four years, Clyman not only learned the language, but set out on a 5,000-mile odyssey to discover the Soviet countryside. Duranty’s idea of “good-bye” was offering to write her obituary.

It is through this “Special Correspondent in Russia of The Toronto Evening Telegram, London Daily Express, and Other Newspapers“, that we know much about the government’s extermination of its own citizens, in Ukraine.

To read what she wrote about abandoned villages, is haunting.  And then the moment of discovery:

“They wanted something of me, but I could not make out what it was. At last someone went off for a little crippled lad of fourteen, and when he came hobbling up, the mystery was explained. This was the Village of Isoomka, the lad told me. I was from Moscow, yes; we were a delegation studying conditions in the Ukraine, yes. Well, they wanted me to take a petition back to the Kremlin, from this village and the one I had just been in. “Tell the Kremlin we are starving; we have no bread!”

18telegramA tall, bearded peasant was spokesman. His two sons and the rest of the men and women nodded approval at every word. The little crippled boy stood with his right hand on his crutch, translating everything he said into Russian for me, word by word.

“We are good, hard-working peasants, loyal Soviet citizens, but the village Soviet has taken our land from us. We are in the collective farm, but we do not get any grain. Everything, land, cows and horses, have been taken from us, and we have nothing to eat. Our children were eating grass in the spring….”

I must have looked unbelieving at this, for a tall, gaunt woman started to take the children’s clothes off. She undressed them one by one, prodded their sagging bellies, pointed to their spindly legs, ran her hand up and down their tortured, mis-shapen, twisted little bodies to make me understand that this was real famine. I shut my eyes, I could not bear to look at all this horror. “Yes,” the woman insisted, and the boy repeated, “they were down on all fours like animals, eating grass. There was nothing else for them.”

“What have you to eat now?” I asked them, still keeping my eyes averted from those tortured bodies. “Are all the villages round here the same? Who gets the grain?”” – Rhea Clyman, Toronto Telegram, 16 May 1933

22,000 of these poor people were starving to death every day, and they still thought the Kremlin was going to help them.

Today, the province of Alberta is home to about 300,000 Canadians of Ukrainian Heritage. About a week ago, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley explained “Holodomor is a combination of two Ukrainian words: Holod, meaning hunger, and moryty, meaning a slow, cruel death. That is exactly what Ukrainians suffered during this deliberate starvation of an entire people“.

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The Holodomor Memorial to Victims of the Ukrainian Famine-Genocide of 1932–1933 was opened in Washington, D.C. on November 7, 2015

Ukrainians around the world recognize November 23 as Holodomor Memorial Day, commemorated by a simple statue in Kiev.  A barefoot little girl, gaunt and hollow eyed, clutches a few stalks of wheat.

Here in the United States, you could line up 100 randomly selected individuals.  I don’t believe that five could tell you what Holodomor means.   We are a self-governing Republic.  All 100 should be well acquainted with the term.

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