September 5, 1698 Death and Taxes

In ancient Egypt, Pharaoh levied a tax on cooking oil. It was illegal to re-use the stuff, but no worries. There was a state-run monopoly on cooking oil, coincidentally run by Pharaoh.  Imagine that.

It’s been said there are only two sure things in life. None of us get out of here alive, and the government thinks it’s entitled to what you earn. Or something like that.

There have always been taxes, but over the years some governments have come up with truly imaginative ways to fleece their citizens.

European Broadcasting
H/T Wikipedia

Twenty-eight countries around the world have a “Telly Tax” paid in the form of a broadcast receiving license.  There’s good news though, the British government will waive half of it, if you can prove you’re legally blind.

This is in addition to the council tax, income tax, fuel tax, road tax, value added tax, pasty tax, national insurance, business rates, stamp duty, and about a thousand other taxes. But hey, the health care is free.

Tennessee passed a “Crack Tax” on illegal drugs in 2005, which drug dealers were expected to pay anonymously in exchange for a tax stamp (don’t ask). The measure was found unconstitutional in 2009, on grounds that it violated the drug dealer’s fifth amendment right to protection from self-incrimination.

Milwaukee attorney Robert Henak became a collector of state drug tax stamps, not long after helping to overturn Wisconsin’s crack tax on similar grounds.

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Undeterred, then-Governor Elliott Spitzer proposed a tax on illegal drugs as part of the Empire State’s 2008-’09 budget, making New York the 30th state to pass such a measure. “Mr. Clean” stepped down in a hooker scandal, amid threats of impeachment by state lawmakers. The state Senate passed a budget resolution the following day, specifically rejecting the crack tax.

Massachusetts will charge you a “meals tax” on five donuts, but not 6. Good to know, next time you want to plow into a box of donuts in one sitting.

Illinois taxes candy at a higher rate than food. Any item containing flour or requiring refrigeration is taxed at the lower rate, because it’s not candy. So, yogurt covered raisins are candy, but yogurt covered pretzels are food. Baby Ruth bars are candy, but Twix bars are food. Get it? Neither do I.

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New Zealand proposed a tax on bovine flatulence in 2003, to curb “Global Warming”. The fuss raised by New Zealand farmers over a tax on cow farts, was near-measurable on the Richter scale.  Red-faced politicians quietly dropped the proposal.

President Obama levied a 10% tax on indoor tanning in 2010, leading to 10,000 of the nation’s 18,000 tanning salons closing, with a loss of 100,000 jobs. The measure may actually have had a net negative effect on treasury proceeds.

Bricked up window

In 1662, King Charles II levied a tax on fireplaces.  Britons hurried to brick up fireplaces to avoid the hearth tax, preferring to shiver rather than pay up.  The village baker in Churchill in Oxfordshire knocked out the wall from her oven to avoid the tax and, unsurprisingly, burned the whole village down.

The idea worked so swell that England introduced a property tax in 1696, based on the number of windows in your home. Homeowners bricked up windows to avoid the tax, leaving them ready to be re-bricked and glazed, should such an opportunity ever arise.

The English government repealed a window tax in 1851 and France in 1926, but you can still find homes with bricked up windows. Perhaps they’re getting ready for window tax version 2.0. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne proposed just that, as recently as 2012.

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In 2004, the Maryland Legislature passed a monthly fee on sewer bills, ostensibly to protect the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic tributaries. You pee, you poo, you pay. The fee doubled in 2012, the year in which Governor Martin O’Malley signed a tax – on rain.

At one point, Holland levied a tax on the width of homes. Not surprisingly, the skinniest house in the world can be found at Singel 7, in Amsterdam. It’s a meter across, barely wider than its own door.

By all means tat yourself up if you like. Just don’t do it in Arkansas where tattoos, body piercings and electrolysis is subjected to a 6% sales tax.

On September 5, 1698, Czar Peter I was just returned from a trip to Europe, hot to “modernize” the Russian empire. All those European guys were clean shaven, so Peter introduced a tax on beards.

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When you paid your beard tax of 100 Rubles, (peasants and clergy were exempt), you had to carry a “beard token”. Two phrases were inscribed on the coin: “The beard tax has been taken” and “The beard is a superfluous burden”. Failure to shave or pay the tax might lead to your beard being forcibly cut off your face. Some unfortunates had theirs pulled out by the roots, by Peter himself.

An anti-religious man and a Big fan of Voltaire and the secular humanist philosophers, ol’ Pete passed a tax on souls in 1718, joining the Russian levy on beehives, horse collars, hats, boots, basements, chimneys, food, clothing, all males, birth, death and marriage.

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When Henry I reigned over England (1100 – 1135), people who avoided military service were charged a “Cowardice Tax”, called a ”Scutage”. The levy was modest at first, but Richard Lionheart’s little brother John raised it by 300% when he became King, charging even his own knights during years when there were no wars. It’s no small part of what led to the Magna Carta.

Often, taxes are used to shape social policy.

In 1862, the California legislature passed a tax on Chinese residents, entitled “An Act to Protect Free White Labor against Competition with Chinese Coolie Labor, and to Discourage the Immigration of Chinese into the State of California.

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The new law levied a tax of $2.50 per month on every ethnically Chinese individual residing within the state, and followed a gold rush era measure levying a tax of $3.00 a month on all Chinese miners. This at a time when the average gold miner made $6 per month.

In 1795, British prime minister William Pitt (the Younger) levied a tax on wig powder.  By 1820, powdered wigs were out of style.

In New Jersey you can buy a pumpkin free of tax, until it been painted, varnished or cut up, for decoration. Then you’ll be charged a sales tax.

Pious politicians can’t resist “sin taxes”, “nudging” citizens away from the likes of evil weed and John Barleycorn, all the while making the self-righteous and the virtue-signaling feel good about themselves.

New Mexico likes competitive sports just fine but, games of chance like bingo or raffles? That’ll cost you another half-point.

I wonder. If cigarette taxes are supposed to encourage smoking cessation and taxes on Chinese were supposed to decrease competition from coolie labor, what are income taxes are supposed to do?

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Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton introduced the first tobacco tax in 1794, and they’ve been with us ever since.

Federal and state governments both get their vig on a pack of butts, ranging from 30 cents a pack in Virginia, to $4.35 in New York. Throw in the taxes levied by counties, municipalities, local subdivisions and Boy Scout Councils (kidding), and people really do change behavior. Just, not always in the intended direction. There is a tiny Indian reservation on Long Island, home to a few hundred and measuring about a square mile. Their cigarette taxes are near zero and, until recently, tribal authorities sold about a hundred million packs a year.

European governments levied a tax on soap in the middle ages, leading to memorable moments in personal hygiene, I’m sure.

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In ancient Egypt, Pharaoh levied a tax on cooking oil. It was illegal to re-use the stuff, but no worries. There was a state-run monopoly on cooking oil, coincidentally run by Pharaoh.  Imagine that.

In the first century AD, Roman Emperors Nero and Vespasian levied a tax on pee. Honest. In those days, the lower classes pissed into pots which were emptied into cesspools.

Urine was collected for a number of chemical processes such as tanning, and it did a swell job whitening those woolen togas. When Vespasian’s son Titus complained about the disgusting nature of the tax his father showed him a gold coin, saying “Pecunia non olet”. “Money does not stink”.

Vespasiano e vespasiani.

To this day, Italian public urinals are called vespasiani.  In France they’re vespasiennes. And if you need to pee in Romania, you could visit the vespasiene.

My personal favorite might be the long distance tax that used to appear on American phone bills. This one began as a “Tax the Rich” scheme, first implemented to pay for the Spanish-American war, in 1898. Nobody ever made long distance phone calls but rich guys, right? It took a lawsuit to end the damned thing which was finally discontinued, in 2005.  We can’t be too hasty about these things.

March 25, 1965 Murder Bay

“Men were known to go into Murder Bay and were not heard of again until their bodies were discovered in the canal or found buried in ash dumps”. – Washington Post, 1888

March is upon us once again, a time when tourists flock to our nation’s capital to take in the cherry blossoms, along the banks of the Potomac. A gift to the United States from the people of Japan the Yoshino cherry in bloom has been called, the “most beautiful thing in the world.

H/T ABC News for this image of the cherry blossoms, of 2022

There, tourists may take in the Lock Keeper’s House, the oldest structure yet standing on the National Mall whose purpose it was to collect tolls and make records of travelers, on the Washington City Canal. Why you may ask, is a lock keeper’s house located at the corner of Constitution Avenue and 17th Street, some ten blocks from the Potomac?

The answer takes us back to a day when our nation’s capital was anything but, the most beautiful place on the earth.

Between 1775 and 1783, the United States Congress and its predecessor bodies did their business in the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia, later known as “Independence Hall”.

Lenfant City Plan

The “Residence Act” of July 1790 established a home for the Federal government along the banks of the Potomac River. 

The specific site was under negotiation when Alexander Hamilton brokered a deal.  Several delegates supported the current location in exchange for which, the Federal government agreed to assume their state’s debt, from the late revolution.

Pierre L’Enfant was selected to create the city plan as well as a design, for the buildings themselves. At the time, navigable waterways formed the economic backbone of the nation. L’Enfant’s plan allowed for a great canal connecting the Anacostia River called the “East branch” with the Tiber Creek, a tributary waterway to the Potomac.

Interest was high in such a canal but funding, was not. The project proceeded in fits and starts over the following decade and stopped altogether, during the War of 1812.

The Washington City Canal was dedicated in 1815. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was finished in 1833 and the lock keeper’s house, two years later. The system had problems from the beginning, overflowing its banks at extreme high tides and becoming too shallow for navigation, at extreme lows. Congress appropriated funds for improvements in 1849 but there were problems with contractors, and staff.

By now, business and government alike looked to the railroad as the future of commerce. The Washington City Canal fell into disrepair.

Washington City Canal H/T photographer, Tom Bosse

Dead animals joined with effluent of every manner and description to fill the W canal. In an age before streetlights, the Washington Evening Star of 1859 called the thing a “Man Trap”, “…because of the number of persons who have walked into it and drowned.” The Secretary of the Interior labeled the canal “a shallow, open sewer, of about one hundred and fifty feet in width, (sometimes called a canal,) which stretches its filthy surface through the heart of the city.”

The Civil War more than doubled Washington’s population with everything from soldiers and political types to escaped slaves living in “contraband camps”, along the canal.

Prostitutes flocked to over 100 houses of ill repute to service the needs, of Union General Joseph Hooker’s army. It’s a myth to say that’s where we get the term “hooker” from, but these ‘ladies of the night’ arrived in such numbers they would come to be called, “Hooker’s Division”.

Desperate to contain the seedier aspects of the city General Hooker consolidated the dark underbelly of the nation’s capital into these few blocks. What was already a seedy redlight district of brothels, gambling dens and alcohol was transformed to a hideous slum, known as “Murder Bay”.

Murder bay in 1855, H/T Smithsonian

Crime and violence rose to almost cartoonish levels. The place was so dangerous the police themselves stayed out, if at all possible. The Washington Post wrote in 1888 “Men were known to go into Murder Bay and were not heard of again until their bodies were discovered in the canal or found buried in ash dumps”. ‘Reforms’ were attempted throughout the post-war era, without success.

Murder Bay as it looked, in 1910

What began with the best of intentions was destined to end, with the wrecking ball. As the ‘Great War’ started up ‘over there’ the federal government bought up land on Pennsylvania Avenue between 14th and 15th Streets. In the 1920s a handy new invention called the bulldozer, helped out.

Ten large city and federal office buildings were built in parts of Murder Bay to form an area now known as, the Federal Triangle. Other parts were razed beginning in the mid-1920s to be replaced with the Internal Revenue Service and the Departments of Justice, Labor, Interstate Commerce and the National Archives.

Washington DC, skyline with federal government buildings and the Monument

On March 25, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed Executive Order No. 11210 providing for “the development of an orderly, phased program for carrying out the improvement of Pennsylvania Avenue”.

The notorious slum known as Murder bay is but a memory now but the canal where it all began, yet flows to the sea. Pierre L’Enfant’s channel is still there, bricked over beneath the wheels of the busses and the bicycle rickshaws and the feet of all those tourists, come to see the cherry blossoms, along the Potomac.

February 22, 2005 I’m from the Government and I’m Here to help

At a 1981 news conference President Ronald Reagan once quipped, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help”.


In 1775, Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull proposed a fortification at the port of New London, situated on the Thames River and overlooking Long Island Sound. The fort was completed two years later. In 1781 Fort Trumbull was attacked and occupied by British forces under the command of the turncoat American General, Benedict Arnold. Barely a month later the Marquis de Lafayette exhorted American troops at a place called Yorktown, to “Remember New London”.

By the early 20th century, the Fort Trumbull neighborhood consisted of 90 or so single and multi-family working class dwellings, situated on a peninsula along the fringes of a mostly industrialized city center.

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In 2000, Susette Kelo became the main plaintiff in the Supreme Court eminent domain case, “Kelo v. New London”

In 1996, chemists working at Pfizer Corporation’s research facility in England were studying compound UK-92, 480 or “Sildenafil Citrate”, synthesized for the treatment of thoracic circulatory conditions. 

Study subjects were expected to return unused medication at the end of the trial. Women showed no objection but a significant number of male subjects refused to give it back. It didn’t take long to figure out what was happening.  The chemical compound had revealed itself to be useful in other ways, a substance we now know by the trade name, “Viagra”

For the newly divorced paramedic Susette Kelo, the house overlooking the Fort Trumbull waterfront was the home of her dreams. Long abandoned and overgrown with vines, the little Victorian cottage needed a lot of work, but where else was she going to find a waterfront view at such a price?  

The year was 1997. Republican governor John Rowland was eager for a victory in deep blue Connecticut and looked to New London, to shore up his political base. Reluctant to share the limelight with New London democrats the administration helped to resurrect the long-dormant New London Development Corporation (NLDC) to revitalize the city’s waterfront.

Meanwhile on her days off, Susette Kelo sanded her floors on hands and knees as Pfizer Corporation, already occupying the largest office complex in the city, eagerly anticipated a cataract of new business based on this latest chemical compound.

The NLDC recruited the company to become the principal tenant in a new “World Class” multi-use waterfront campus overlooking the harbor including high-income housing, hotels, shopping and restaurants, all of it centered around a 750,000 sq. ft. corporate research facility.

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Bill von Winkle stands in front of two properties he owns in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood of New London, CT

Connecticut College professor and NLDC President Dr. Claire Gaudiani liked to talk about her “hip” new development project.  Fort Trumbull residents were convinced that stood for “High Income People”. With an average income of $22,500, that didn’t include themselves.

Most property owners agreed to sell, though not exactly “voluntarily”.  The reluctant ones were harassed including late-night phone calls, waste dumped on properties and tenants locked out of apartments during cold winter weather.

Seven homeowners holding fifteen properties refused to sell, at any price. Wilhelmina Dery was in her eighties. She was born in her house and she wanted to die there. The Cristofaro family had lost another New London home in the 1970s, taken by eminent domain during yet another “urban renewal” program. They didn’t want to lose this one, too.

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Susette Kelo in front of her “little pink house”

In 2000 the New London city council voted to authorize the NLDC to use eminent domain to condemn the property, of those who refused to sell. The day before Thanksgiving, Susette Kelo came home from work to find an eviction notice taped to her door.

Letters were written to editors and protest rallies were held, as NLDC and state officials literally began to bulldoze homes. Holdout property owners were left trying to prevent personal injury and property damage, from flying demolition debris.

Facing a prolonged legal battle which none of the homeowners could afford, the group got a boost when the Libertarian law firm Institute for Justice took their case, pro bono. There was cause for hope. Retired homeowner Vera Coking had faced a similar fight against the future President Donald Trump’s development corporation back in 1993 when the developer and Atlantic City New Jersey authorities attempted to get her house condemned, to build a limo lot.

Eminent domain exists for a purpose, but the most extreme care should be taken in its use. Plaintiffs argued that this was not a “public use”, but rather a private corporation using the power of government to take their homes for economic development, a violation of both the takings clause of the 5th amendment and the due process clause of the 14th.

Vera Coking won her case against the developer, and the municipality.  The casino itself later failed and closed its doors. New London District Court, with Susette Kelo lead plaintiff “split the baby”, ruling that 11 out of 15 takings were illegal and unconstitutional. At that point, the ruling wasn’t good enough for the seven homeowners. They had been through too much.  They would all remain, or they would all go.

Connecticut’s highest court reversed the decision, throwing out the baby AND the bathwater in a 3-4 decision. By this time Governor Rowland had been removed from office, convicted of corruption and sentenced to a year and a day in prison plus four months of house arrest, three years probation and community service.

No matter, Rowland had served his purpose. The case was now beyond Connecticut politics. Seven justices of the United States Supreme Court then in attendance heard the case on February 22, 2005.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist was then recuperating at home from medical treatment and Associate Justice John Paul Stevens was delayed in Florida and unable to return to return to Washington, DC. All nine justices would weigh in on the final decision.

SCOTUS ruled in favor of the city in a 5-4 decision, Justices Stevens, Kennedy, Souter, Breyer and even that celebrated social justice warrior Ruth Bader Ginsburg concurring in a vote to throw a working class woman, out of her home.

Seeing the decision as a reverse Robin Hood scheme which would steal from the poor to give to the rich, Sandra Day O’Connor wrote “Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms“.

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Clarence Thomas took an originalist view stating that the majority opinion had confused “Public Use” with “Public Purpose”. “Something has gone seriously awry with this Court’s interpretation of the Constitution“, Thomas wrote. “Though citizens are safe from the government in their homes, the homes themselves are not“.  Antonin Scalia concurred, seeing any tax advantage to the municipality as secondary to the taking itself.

In the end, most of the homes were destroyed or relocated. State and city governments spent $78 million and bulldozed 70 acres.  The 3,169 new jobs and $1.2 million in new tax revenue anticipated from the waterfront development, never materialized.  Pfizer backed out of the project moving 1,400 existing jobs to a campus it owns in nearby Groton.  The move was completed around the time when tax breaks were set to expire, raising the company’s tax bill by 500%.

Susette Kelo sold her home for a dollar to Avner Gregory, a preservationist who dismantled the little pink house and moved it across town.  A monument to what Ambrose Bierce once called “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage”.

Movie Trailer and feature image from the film “Little Pink House” released in April, 2018.

By 2011, the now-closed redevelopment area had become a dumping ground for debris left by Hurricane Irene. The only residents were weeds, and feral cats.

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“Michael Cristofaro in the field in New London, Conn., where his parents lived. The city seized the land for a private “urban village” that was never built. Pfizer’s complex is in the background”. Credit Christopher Capozziello for The New York Times

Ten years after the debacle the company is in the news, yet again. The December 2021 CNBC headline informs us: “Pfizer CEO says fourth Covid vaccine doses may be needed sooner than expected due to omicron“. Two months later the same outlet reported “Pfizer expects $54 billion in 2022 sales on Covid vaccine and treatment pill“. That’s pretty good work. If you can get it.

In the decade since it all began revitalization amounted to the cube root, of zero. In 2019, local wags took to planting fruit trees and vegetables where working class homes, once stood. A sign posted on social media read, “A gift to the people, reclaiming land stolen by corporate greed.” These latter-day daughters and sons of liberty might have added the two words, “…and government“.

February 19, 1914 Baby Mail

With new postal regulations now in effect, people tested the limits. Bricks were mailed as were snakes and any number of small animals, as long as they didn’t require food or water on the trip. The first parcel mailed from St. Louis Missouri to Edwardsville Illinois contained six eggs. Seven hours later the eggs came back to St. Louis, baked in a cake.

At one time, nations paired up to negotiate postal treaties providing for the direct exchange of mail. The US signed such a treaty with Prussia, in 1853. Germany wasn’t a country in those days in the sense that it is today, more of a collection of independent city-states. Some states in southern Germany sent US-bound mail through France but, there being no Franco-American treaty, mail was forced to travel on British or Belgian cargo vessels. France and the United States wrangled over a postal treaty from 1852 until July 1874 leading the exasperated Minister to France Elihu Washburne to groan: “There is no nation in the world more difficult to make treaties with than France.”

The German Empire was formed in 1871 following victory, in the Franco-Prussian War. The German Reichspost was now free to enact uniform postal regulations within the new nation. Even so, US-bound letters required differing amounts of postage, depending on which ship the letter traveled on. Something had to change.

German Postmaster-General Heinrich von Stephan called for an International Postal Congress in 1874. The Treaty of Bern signed on October 9 resulted in a uniform system of postage between nations. That, and a very nice statue in granite and bronze in memory of the new, Universal Postal Union.

All was well between nations but here in the US, the postal service was barely out of diapers. The mail didn’t even go to the “country”. Rural residents were forced to travel days to distant post offices or hire private express companies, to deliver the mail. For years, the National Grange and other farmers’ welfare organizations lobbied Congress for inclusion in the national mail service. The Rural Free Delivery (RFD) act of 1896 opened new worlds to farmers who soon clamored for exotic foodstuffs and tobacco unavailable in rural districts.

Unsurprisingly, rural merchants and express delivery companies fought the measure tooth and nail but they were destined to fail. Parcel post service began on January 1, 1913.

Overnight, parcel limits increased from 4 pounds to fifty. During the first five days alone 1,594 post offices handled over 4 million packages.

People tested the limits. Bricks were mailed as were snakes and any number of small animals, as long as they didn’t require food or water on the trip. The first parcel mailed from St. Louis Missouri to Edwardsville Illinois contained six eggs. Seven hours later the eggs came back to St. Louis, baked in a cake.

You know where this is going, right?

In 1913, Mr. and Mrs. Jesse Beauge of Glen Este, Ohio mailed their baby boy. Seriously. The couple mailed their ten-pound son off to his grandmother’s house a mile away at a cost, of 15¢ postage. History fails to record whether the kid was left in the mailbox or stuffed through a slot in the door, but these people were no cheapskates. The pair popped for 50 bucks’ insurance, “just in case“.

5-year-old May Pierstorff came in just under the weight limit at 48½ pounds. On February 19, 1914, little May was mailed to visit her grandmother in Lewiston Idaho with 53¢ postage, pinned to her coat. She rode the whole way in the postage compartment but hey, postage was cheaper than train fare. Leonard Mochel, the mail clerk on duty delivered the kid to her grandmother’s house, personally.

Six-year old Edna Neff was mailed 720 miles away from Pensacola, Florida to Christiansberg, Virginia, to visit her father.

.If you have read thus far with horror permit me to assure you that mailing babies might not be as bad as it sounds. In the rural America of this period the mail carrier was no stranger but a well known and trusted member of a close-knit community. In the case of little May Pierstorff the postal worker who took her by rail, was a relative. No one ever put a child wearing diapers in a mailbox. The photographs above were staged, the sepia-toned faces grinning back over the years at those of us, they have punked.

Be that as it may, Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson heard of the Pierstorff incident and put his foot down. The practice of mailing humans was officially prohibited. The golden age of baby mail had come to an end. Sort of.

In August 1915 three-year old Maud Smith was mailed forty miles across Kentucky by her grandparents, to visit her sick mother. Hers may be the last human journey by US mail and the postmaster in Caney Kentucky, had some explaining to do.

In June 1920 1st Assistant Postmaster General John C. Coons rejected two applications to mail live children stating they could no longer be classified, as ‘harmless live animals”.

February 18, 1943 Just a Normal Person

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” ― Winston S. Churchill

With Hitler’s appointment as chancellor on January 30, 1933, the Nazi party lost little time in eliminating opposition. Two days later, the 876-member democratically elected deliberative body, the “Reichstag”, was dissolved.

As the 1930s wore on it was increasingly dangerous to oppose the Nazi party. History fails to record many of the names of those who simply…disappeared. Forget for a moment the idiocy of our age and the ease with which the word Nazi, is thrown around. Then imagine having the courage to oppose those monsters alone, in the 1930s and ’40s. Many who did so would pay with their lives: Bernhard Lichtenberg. Martin Niemöller. Claus von Stauffenberg. Franz Jägerstätter. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. There were others. Too many to count.

Campaigners outside a polling place during the federal elections, of 1932

Some survived to tell the tale. One such was the Württemberg politician Robert Scholl who criticized the ruling party before, during and after World War 2. Scholl was one of the lucky ones. He lived to tell the story, but not without spending some of the intervening years, behind bars.

Robert and Magdalena (Müller) Scholl had six children together, four girls and two boys. The older of the two brothers, Hans, joined the Hitler youth, against the express will of his father. 

Hans Scholl

Hans even held a leadership position in the Deutsches Jungvolk in der Hitler Jugend (“German Youngsters in the Hitler Youth”), a section of the Hitler Youth aimed at indoctrinating boys, 10-14.

In 1935, Hans was selected to carry the flag at the 1935 Nazi party rally in Nuremberg, one of three standard-bearers, from Ulm.

He joined the Reich Labor Service for two years before beginning medical school, in Munich. During a semester break, Scholl was drafted as a medic in the French campaign. Back at school, Scholl began to meet teachers and students, critical of the regime. Theirs was a Christian-ethical world view. One of them was Alexander Schmorrell.

Hugo Schmorell was a German-born doctor, living and working in Russia. He married Natalia Vedenskaya, the daughter of a Russian Orthodox priest. Alexander Schmorell was born to the couple in Orenberg Russia and baptized, in the Russian Orthodox church. 

Hugo remarried after Natalia died of typhus, this time to a German woman who, like himself, grew up in Russia. Alexander grew up bilingual, able to speak German and Russian, like a native.

Following the Russian Revolution, the family moved to Weimar Germany . In later interrogations by the Gestapo, Alexander described himself as a German-Russian Tsarist who hated Bolsheviks. 

Alexander Schmorell

In the Nazi world view, slavs are part of a great horde of Untermenschen, people considered racially or socially, inferior. Alexander Schmorell believed no such thing about himself. He was proud of both his German and his Russian side.

In religion class, Schmorell displayed a stubborn refusal to bend to the will of others, crossing himself right-to-left in the manner of the Russian church and not left to right. Alexander joined the Scharnhorst youth as a boy, mostly for the love of horseback riding. Once the organization was absorbed into the Hitler Youth movement he gradually stopped attending. Like Scholl, Schmorell joined the Wehrmacht, participating in the Anschluss and eventual invasion, of Czechoslovakia.

In 1941, Scholl and Schmorrell were drafted as medical auxiliaries, for service in the east. There the two witnessed the dark underbelly of the regime in whose service, they risked their lives. The Warsaw ghetto. The savage treatment of Russian prisoners. The endless deportations and dark rumors of extermination centers.

Members of the German resistance “White Rose, in 1942

Scholl and Schmorrell wanted better. Back in school the pair discussed this growing dissatisfaction with the regime with Kurt Huber, professor of music and a vocal anti-Nazi. By June 1942 the pair had begun to write pamphlets and calling themselves, the “White Rose”.

“Isn’t it true that every honest German is ashamed of his government these days? Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes—crimes that infinitely outdistance every human measure—reach the light of day?”— 1st leaflet of the White Rose

Hans and Sophie Scholl with Christoph Probst

During later gestapo interrogations, Scholl gave differing stories as to the origin of the name. A poem of the same name by the German poet, Clemens Brentano. A work by the Cuban poet, José Martí. Perhaps it was nothing more than the purity of the white rose, in the face of evil. Or maybe Scholl meant to throw his Nazi tormenters off the scent of Josef Söhngen, the anti-Nazi bookseller who had helped them, in so many ways.

Willi Graf

Since the conquest of Poland, 300,000 Jews have been murdered in this country in the most bestial way … The German people slumber on in dull, stupid sleep and encourage the fascist criminals. Each wants to be exonerated of guilt, each one continues on his way with the most placid, calm conscience. But he cannot be exonerated; he is guilty, guilty, guilty!”— 2nd leaflet of the White Rose

The group added members and supporters. Willi Graf who, unlike the founding members hated the Hitler Youth movement, from the beginning. Christoph Probst whose step-mother was Jewish and considered the Nuremberg laws an affront to human dignity. Hans’ sister Sophie who joined, despite her older brother’s protestations. Like her brother, Sophie detested what the Nazis stood for.

“Why do you allow these men who are in power to rob you step by step, openly and in secret, of one domain of your rights after another, until one day nothing, nothing at all will be left but a mechanised state system presided over by criminals and drunks? Is your spirit already so crushed by abuse that you forget it is your right—or rather, your moral duty—to eliminate this system?”— 3rd leaflet of the White Rose

Sophie Scholl

“The government—or rather, the party—controlled everything: the news media, arms, police, the armed forces, the judiciary system, communications, travel, all levels of education from kindergarten to universities, all cultural and religious institutions. Political indoctrination started at a very early age, and continued by means of the Hitler Youth with the ultimate goal of complete mind control. Children were exhorted in school to denounce even their own parents for derogatory remarks about Hitler or Nazi ideology”.

Surviving White Rose member George J. Wittenstein, M.D., “Memories of the White Rose”, 1979

Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen was critical of the Nazi movement from the beginning, denouncing Hitler’s “Worship of Race” as early as 1934.

Galen excoriated the Nazi euthanization program from the Catholic pulpits of Münster and across the German empire, condemning  “the innocent and defenseless mentally handicapped and mentally ill, the incurably infirm and fatally wounded, innocent hostages and disarmed prisoners of war and criminal offenders, people of a foreign race or descent”.

Bishop Galen’s sermons were seminal in the formation of the White Rose. One of his sermons formed the basis for the first pamphlet.

Hand copied leaflets were inserted into phone books or mailed directly, to teachers and students.

The grotesque sham trials conducted by Hitler’s “Blood Judge” Roland Feisler made short work of any who would oppose “Der Fuhrer”. Today, the “People’s Court” of Nazi Germany is best remembered in the wake of the July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. In reality, this perversion of justice had been around for ten years, handing out death sentences, in the hundreds. This video gives a pretty good idea of “justice” meted out, in Roland Feisler’s court.

“The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

There were Germans throughout the war who objected to the murder of millions, but theirs was a forlorn hope. Clergymen Dietrich Bonhoeffer would state “the ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.” For his opposition to the Reich, Bonhoeffer would pay with his life.

Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, great grand-nephew of the famous Helmut von Moltke would lead 28 dissidents of the “Kreisau Circle”, against this “outrage of the Christian conscience.” These too would pay with their lives.

The most successful German opposition party came from the universities of Munich, with connections in Berlin, Hamburg, Stuttgart and Vienna, including the White Rose. These were a surprise to Nazi leaders as Universities had long been stalwart supporters of Nazi ideology. 

Hans and Sophie arrived on campus with a suitcase full of pamphlets, on February 18. This was their 6th. Hurriedly moving through the campus the Scholls left stacks of leaflets outside of full lecture halls: Memorial to the “Weiße Rose” in front of the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich

Today, the “People’s Court” of the schweinhund Feisler is a district court, in Munich.

“…Fellow Fighters in the Resistance!  Shaken and broken, our people behold the loss of the men of Stalingrad. Three hundred and thirty thousand German men have been senselessly and irresponsibly driven to death and destruction by the inspired strategy of our World War I Private First Class. Fuhrer, we thank you!…” – Excerpt from pamphlet 6

Their task complete, the pair realized they still had a few. From the upper floor of the atrium, Sophie tossed them into the air and watched them flutter to the ground. It was a reckless and stupid act.

If this story is about heroism it also about the opposite, the sort of loathesome toady without who no Nazi regime, would have thrived. One such was the custodian Jakob Schmid, who scurried to the top of the stairs and grasped the two by the collar.

Christoph Probst

The Scholl siblings were quickly arrested. Hans had on his person the draft of another pamphlet: #7, written by Christoph Probst. He tried to eat it but the Gestapo was too fast. Probst was arrested within hours, eighty more over the following days. On February 22, 1943, all three were tried before judge Feisler’s People’s Court. All three were sentenced to death by guillotine, the execution carried out, the same day. 

Hans Scholl’s last words are recorded as Es lebe die Freiheit! (Let Freedom live!)

Graf, Schmorrell, Huber and 11 others were tried on April 13. All three received the same sentence, death by decapitation. All but one of the others received prison sentences, between 6 months and 10 years.

The last member to be executed was Hans Conrad Leipelt on January 29, 1945.

Despite the execution of the group’s leaders, the White Rose had the last word. That last pamphlet was smuggled out of Germany and copied, by the allies. Millions of copies rained down from the sky, dropped, by allied bombers.

Lieselotte ″Lilo″ Fürst-Ramdohr was a war widow at 29 when she joined the White Rose, hiding pamphlets in an apartment closet and helping to make stencils, for graffiti. In 2013 she gave an interview for BBC Worldwide. It was three months before she died, at the age of 99.

Lieselotte ″Lilo″ Fürst-Ramdohr

Lieselotte was arrested and interrogated for a month by the Gestapo, and released. She thinks they’d hoped she would lead them, to fellow conspirators.

In 2012, Lilo’s friend Alexander Schmorell was awarded sainthood by the Russian Orthodox church. She thought it was all too amusing. “He would have laughed out loud” she said, “if he had known. He wasn’t a saint. He was just a normal person.”

January 14, 1967 The Cloud

“The Army disclosed yesterday that it secretly conducted 239 germ warfare tests in open air between 1949 and 1969, some tests releasing live but supposedly harmless microscope [SIC] “bugs” at Washington’s Greyhound bus terminal and National Airport as part of the experiment.” Washington Post, March 9, 1977

Hat tip Wall Street Journal

On October 11, 1950, Mr. Edward J. Nevin checked into Stanford hospital in San Francisco with a fever, respiratory and other symptoms. Doctors diagnosed the retired pipefitter, with pneumonia.

Ten other women and men checked into the same hospital at this time, all suffering with the same symptoms. Respiratory difficulty combined with kidney and/or urinary tract infections so rare as to prompt their publication in a prestigious medical journal.

The cause was believed to be exposure to the bacterium, Serratia marcescens. Mr. Nevin, 75, underwent prostate surgery causing S. marcescens to travel through his blood from the urinary tract, to his heart. Three weeks later, he was dead. The other ten recovered.

In 1981 the Nevin grandchildren sued the federal government for the death of their grandfather and the economic destruction wrought on their grandmother, the direct result of ruinously high medical expenses. The alleged cause of death was the deliberate poisoning of the entire city of San Francisco, by the United States Navy.

On January 14, 1967, the New York Times reported the United States Army was conducting secret germ warfare experiments, on its own citizens.

Turns out the San Francisco episode was part of a biowarfare experiment, called “Operation Sea-Spray”. Beginning on September 20, 1950 and continuing for seven days the US Navy sprayed massive amounts of two bacteria into the air believed to be harmless at the time, along with an iridescent agent, to aid with tracking. With cover and assistance from the famous San Francisco fog enough of this stuff was released into the atmosphere, that 43 tracking stations set up across the city determined that every one of the city’s 800,000 residents inhaled no fewer than 5,000 such particles.

Ten years later the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Health and Scientific Research held a series of hearings, on the matter. On March 9, 1977, the Washington Post reported: “The Army disclosed yesterday that it secretly conducted 239 germ warfare tests in open air between 1949 and 1969, some tests releasing live but supposedly harmless microscope [SIC] “bugs” at Washington’s Greyhound bus terminal and National Airport as part of the experiment…Washingtin [SIC] was one of five cities where the Army released simulated lethal germs i [SIC] public places. Other cities where the public served as unknowing guinea pigs were New York, San Francisco, Key West and panama City, Fla”.

The Wall Street Journal reported on October 22, 2001, “In New York, military researchers in 1966 spread Bacillus subtilis variant Niger, also believed to be harmless, in the subway system by dropping lightbulbs filled with the bacteria onto tracks in stations in midtown Manhattan. The bacteria were carried for miles throughout the subway system, leading Army officials to conclude in a January 1968 report: “Similar covert attacks with a pathogenic [disease-causing] agent during peak traffic periods could be expected to expose large numbers of people to infection and subsequent illness or death.””

The Post reported 27 instances of simulated germ warfare attacks on two tunnels of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and a number of military installations including Fort Detrick, Maryland, Fort Belvoir, Virginia and the Marine training school at Quantico, Virginia.

The Post goes on to report that “Another 504 workers connected with biological warfare activities at Ft. Detrick, Dugway proving Ground and the Deseret test Center in Utah and the Pine Bluff Arsenal in Arkansas suffered infections, according to the Army’s count”. The Army went on to report that “three laboratorers at Fort Detrick died from diseases contracted in the 1950s and 1960s”.

I wasn’t aware that “laboratorers” is a word but the Washington Post seems to think it is.

Utah’s Dugway Proving Ground alone conducted “hundreds, perhaps thousands of open-air tests using bacteria and viruses that cause disease in human, animals, and plants” according to a 1994 report, by the GAO (US General Accounting Office). One such experiment resulted in 3,843 dead animals in an episode known as, the “Skull Valley Sheep Kill“. In the end as many as 6,400 were killed or humanely euthanized as even the rumor of nerve agents renders both the wool and the meat of such an animal, less than worthless. A report which remained classified for thirty years blamed a faulty nozzle left open, as the test aircraft gained altitude.

Public backlash was vehement against the US Army Chemical Corps, and nearly lead to its disbanding.  President Richard Nixon ordered a halt to open air testing of “NBC” (Nuclear Biological and Chemical) agents, in 1969.

In the past, military spokesmen have argued that such tests are necessary. That NBC agents are readily available to state and non-state actors such as terrorist organizations and we must know how these agents behave, under real world conditions.

Perhaps they have a point. As does the ancient proverb of the Kikuyu people of Kenya, which tells us, “when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers”.

January 12, 1913 Man of Steel

Historians differ as to the deaths brought about by this one man. Numbers range from several million to well over twenty million.

A story comes to us of one Josef Jughashvili, the only child of a laundress and an alcoholic shoemaker, to survive to adulthood. Walking along a rain swollen river a group of boys chanced upon a bleating calf, cut off by the torrent on a small and crumbling island. Taking off his shirt Jughashvili dived into the roiling waters and swam to the terrified animal. Turning first to be sure his buddies were watching Josef proceeded to break the defenseless animal’s legs, one at a time.

The tale may be apocryphal or it may be true but the narrative captures perfectly, the man he would become. One of the great beasts of a century which gave us, no small number of monsters.

In 1884 a bout with smallpox left him disfigured. The other kids called him “pocky”. Though smaller than his classmates he joined a gang and got into many fights from which he never, backed down. He was smart and excelled in academics. He also displayed talent in art, drama and choir. A childhood friend recalled he “was the best but also the naughtiest pupil”.

Police phot at age 23, 1902

He enrolled in the seminary in Tiflis but a life in the priesthood, was never meant to be. A voracious reader, the “Forbidden Book Club” filled young Jughashvili’s head with ideas forbidden, in Czarist Russia. Plato. Checkov. Tolstoy. Zola. So taken was he with the writings of Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx he attempted to learn German, to better appreciate the original text.

Jugashvili proclaimed himself an atheist and thus ended any future, in the Orthodox priesthood. Expelled from seminary before the turn of the century he was now a Marxist agitator, teaching classes in leftist theory from a small flat on Sololaki Street and entering a life of crime, in order to finance the Bolshevik party.

In 1912, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin appointed Josef to the first Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party, while still in exile in Switzerland. On this day in 1913, Josef Dzhugashvili signed a letter to the Social Democrat newspaper, “Stalin”. The Man of Steel.

By 1917, three years of total war had brought the Russian economy, to its knees. Kaiser Wilhelm calculated that all he had to do was “kick the door in” to destroy his adversary to the east. Thus did the famous “sealed train” depart Zurich bound for Petrograd in April, 1917 carrying Lenin, and 31 Marxist revolutionaries.

Kaiser Wilhelm was right. As WW1 continued elsewhere Czarist Russia descended into not one but two civil wars resulting in the triumph of the radical Bolsheviks over the more moderate Mensheviks and the murder of Czar Nicholas, his wife the Czarina and the couple’s children, servants and dogs.

The Union of Soviet Socialist republics (USSR) was officially founded in 1922. Lenin died in 1924. Throughout this period Stalin steadily grew his own base of support, outmaneuvering rivals for the top spot. By the late 1920s he was head of the communist state.

The “Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei” or Main Camp Administration system, began in 1919. By 1921 there were 84 such “Gulags”, but this hideous system really came of age, under Josef Stalin.

The Soviet Union was mostly agrarian when Stalin came to power, launching a series of five year plans to bring the USSR into the industrial age. Significant opposition came first from the Kulaks, the more prosperous of the peasant farming class who viewed Stalin’s “collectivization” efforts as a return to the serfdom, of earlier ages.

The ranks of the Gulags swelled to include the educated and ordinary citizens alike. Doctors, intellectuals, students, artists and scientists all disappeared into the Gulags, crude slave labor camps from which many, never returned.

Anyone so much as suspected of holding views contrary to the regime, anyone suspected of association with such persons were “disappeared”. Swept up in the night by Stalin’s terrifying NKVD security police and placed in conditions of such brutality prisoners were known to hack at their hands with axes or thrust their arms into wood stoves to avoid yet another man-killing hour, of slave labor.

“I trust no one, not even myself.

Josef Stalin

The early 1930s was a time of famine for the Kulaks of Ukraine, the former breadbasket of the Soviet Union. Continuing to resist Stalin’s collectivization, these “enemies of the state” were deliberately starved to death by their own government, their numbers running into the several millions in a period known, as “Holodomor“.

During the late ’30s, nearly 800,000 were summarily executed during the Great Purge, another two million shipped off to the gulags. Official paranoia rose to levels almost comical, but for their deadly consequence. Photo retouching became a cottage industry as former associates were simply…disappeared.

Much may be said of a man, by the company he keeps. Genrikh Yagoda, Nikolai Yezhov, Lavrentiy Beria, they’re not common names for those of us educated in American public schools but these are the men who carried out the Stalinist terror, as heads of the dread NKVD. Though we may not know their names these are beasts as loathsome as Nazi Police Official Reinhard Heydrich, SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler or Gestapo Chief Heinrich Müller.

By 1938, Stalin’s purges had crippled the Soviet Union. Entire swathes of the Soviet military, government and popu,ation, had ceased to exist. Head of the security state Nikolai Yezhov was himself outmaneuvered from his position, denounced and murdered by his successor, Lavrentiy Beria. Even Leon Trotsky, founding father that he was of the Bolshevik party was tracked down to his place of exile in Mexico on Stalin’s orders and murdered with an ice axe, in the top of his head.

Investigators display the ice axe used to assassinate Leon Trotsky

Major General Vasili Blokhin was handpicked by Stalin in 1926 as chief executioner, for the NKVD. To this day the man stands as the world’s most prolific executioner with tens of thousands dead, by his blood soaked hands. During the Spring of 1940 Blokhin personally murdered 7,000 Polish prisoners of war over 28 consecutive nights, each with a bullet to the back of the head.

The man literally kept a briefcase full of German made Walther PPK pistols, lest one of them overheat.

Major General Vasili Blokhin

Today, the 1940 episode is remembered as the Katyn Massacre, the murder of 22,000 defenseless prisoners of war primarily, Polish Army officers. For fifty years the atrocity was believed to have been carried out, by the Nazis.

The Molotov Ribbentrop pact of 1939 meant, at east for a time, an alliance between the two great monsters of mid-20th century Europe. That all changed on June 22, 1941. Operation Barbarossa. Adolf Hitler’s surprise attack, on the Soviet Union.

Some 30 million among an estimated 70 to 85 million killed during World War 2 died, on the Eastern Front. The number includes nine million children, killed in an out-and-out race war, Slav against Teuton, that is dreadful even by the horrendous standards of WW2. Order No. 27 became standard operating procedure, for the rest of the war. Between 1942 and 1945 some 422,700 Red Army personnel were executed by their own officers, as the result of Stalin’s order. “Ni shagu nazad”. “Not one step back”.

Josef Stalin went to bed sometime after 4:00am on February 28, 1953, with orders that he not be disturbed. 10am came and went, the usual time when the dictator would call for his tea. Morning turned to afternoon and into evening and yet, his terrified guards not wanting themselves to be purged, waited on. It was 10pm when a guard entered the room using as his excuse, the afternoon mail. The Soviet dictator was alive but helpless and unable to speak, laying in a pool of his own urine. His broken watch was stopped at 6:30pm.

The Man of Steel lingered in agony until March 5 as his own doctors languished in the Gulag and none assumed the authority, to make a decision about his care. Whether Stalin was murdered or simply left to die by those too terrified to do anything about it, is a matter for speculation.

Historians differ as to the deaths brought about by this one man. Numbers range from several million to well over twenty million.

Today, public imagination barely registers how fortunate we are that Adolf Hitler chose to turn from a defeated adversary on the beaches of Dunkirk to attack his erstwhile ally, in the east. Where we would be today had Little Boy and Fat Man had a swastika or a hammer and sickle painted on the side is a nightmare, too dismal to contemplate.

November 5, 1605 Remember Remember, the 5th of November

The plan was to decapitate the English state, blowing up King James I along with much of the nation’s religious and political leadership. The Gunpowder Plot would end in failure, and a rhyme known to British school children, from that day to this.

The Tudor King Henry VIII began to take control of the English church in 1533, barely 16 years after Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 theses to the church door. The Protestant Reformation was barely underway. With life and eternal damnation at stake both sides would come to regard the other, as heretical.

Henry fell out with Pope Clement VII over the latter’s refusal to grant him an annulment from Catherine of Aragon. By 1540, the break between the Church of England and the Church of Rome was complete.

henryviii

English Catholics became increasingly marginalized for the remainder of Henry’s reign, and that of his daughter, Elizabeth I, who died in 1603 without issue. There were several assassination attempts against Protestant rulers in Europe and England, including a failed plot to poison Elizabeth I and the assassination of French King Henry III, who was stabbed to death by a Catholic fanatic, in 1589.

King James VI of Scotland succeeded the “Virgin Queen” in 1603, to the great disappointment of English Catholics. The moderates among them favored James’ and Elizabeth’s cousin Arbella Stuart, a woman believed to harbor Catholic sympathies. More radical Catholics looked to the infant daughter of Phillip II of Spain, the Infanta Isabella.

There were already at least two plots to remove the King from office, when James discovered that his wife, Queen Anne, had secretly received a rosary from the Pope. James responded by denouncing the Catholic Church, ordering Jesuit and all other Catholic priests to leave the country. He re-imposed “recusancy fees”, which had earlier been implemented by Elizabeth. The sum of such fines soon rose to £5,000 a year, equivalent to well over £10 million today.

Among those who believed that ‘faith need not be kept with heretics’, regicide seemed the only way out.

The “Gunpowder Plot”, also known as the “Jesuit Treason”, was inspired by Robert Catesby, a man of “ancient, historic and distinguished lineage”.

In league with about a dozen others, Catesby planned to blow up the House of Lords on November 5, 1605, killing King James and his Privy Council along with untold MPs and government records. The plan was to spark a popular revolt in the Midlands ending in the installation of James’ 9-year-old daughter, Princess Elizabeth, as Catholic head of state.

gfawkes

Guy Fawkes, who had 10 years of military experience fighting for the King of Spain in the Netherlands by this time, was placed in charge of the explosives.

In those days, goods of all kinds were transported in kegs. The movement of even a large number, was perfectly ordinary. Anticipating the State Opening of Parliament on July 28, 36 kegs of powder were moved to an undercroft on the 20th, a small room beneath the House of Lords. There was a metric ton of the stuff, enough to destroy the parliament building and everything around it, for a radius of 100 meters.

And then the plague reared its head and with it the fear, of gathering in large numbers. Parliament was postponed, until November 5.

Others were brought into the plot. That was probably it’s undoing. As the day approached an anonymous letter came to light, warning of the plot. Two separate searches on the evening of the 4th revealed the gunpowder barrels, hidden under sticks and coal. Guy Fawkes was discovered nearby carrying a length of slow burning fuse, called a match.

Fawkes was defiant at first saying there was enough powder, to “blow you Scotch beggars back to your native mountains“. Days of torture lay in wait, beginning with shackles and increasing in severity until finally, his body was “broken” on the rack. In January, all but two of the 13 conspirators were hanged, drawn and quartered for their treason. Those two had died in the attempt to flee and these, were dug up and decapitated. Fawkes himself, weakened by torture and weeks of confinement in the tower of London, even now managed to jump from the scaffold and break his neck, and thus to spare himself the ordeal of being emasculated and disemboweled before his own dying eyes.

Guy Fawkes Mask

So it is that today, November 5th, is “Guy Fawkes Day”. People all over England will “remember, remember, the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot.” Effigies of Guy Fawkes will be burned throughout the land.

A stylized version of the “Guy Fawkes Mask” came to be in the 1980s, with a comic book series and its later film adaptation, “V for Victory”. The story depicts a vigilante effort to destroy an authoritarian government in a dystopian future, Great Britain.

Since that time, groups ranging from the hacker/activist group Anonymous to Occupy, even radical Libertarians have used the Guy Fawkes mask. A symbol of protest against out of control, tyrannical government, political and banking institutions.

October 28, 1945 Re-Union

It may be the greatest trivia question that ever was: “Who was last to rejoin the Union, following the Civil War?“ It wasn’t who you think…

By the early 1830s, cotton exceeded the value of all other American exports, combined. As secession loomed over the Union, one Chicago Daily Times editorial warned that if the South left “in one single blow, our foreign commerce must be reduced to less than one half of what it is now”.

fernando_wood_(1812-1881)

South Carolina was the first to leave, formally departing the Union in December 1860. The world waited to see who would be next.

Anyone can tell you it was Mississippi who actually did it but the next to openly discuss secession was New York City, when Mayor Fernando Wood addressed the city’s governing body on January 6: When Disunion has become a fixed and certain fact”, Wood began, “why may not New York disrupt the bands which bind her to a venal and corrupt master…and destroyed the Confederacy of which she was the proud Empire City?”

Economic ties with the south ran deep in New York city and New York state, alike. 40¢ of every dollar paid for southern cotton stayed in New York in the form of insurance, shipping, warehouse fees and profits.

30 minutes’ east of Buffalo, the village of Lancaster contemplated staying with the Union. 500 miles from the nearest Confederate state, George Huber remembered the time. “When war was declared, Lancaster seethed with the news, and many were the nights we stayed up as late as 12 o’clock to talk things out. I was twelve years old at the time, but I remember the stern faces of the elders and the storm of passionate and angry discussion. Soon the town split into two factions, it was a very tense situation…Often the excitement ran so high that if a man in either group had made the slightest sign, neighbors would have been at each other’s throats and fists would have taken the place of words.

town line courthouse
The old blacksmith shop

“Town Line”, a hamlet on the village’s eastern boundary, put the matter to a vote. In the fall of 1861, residents gathered in the old schoolhouse-turned blacksmith’s shop. By a margin of 85 to 40, Town Line voted to secede from the Union.

There was angry talk of arresting “Copperheads” for sedition, as casualty reports came back from the front. “Seceders” became quiet, afraid to meet in public amidst angry talk of lynching. A half-dozen or so more ardent secessionists went south to fight for the Confederacy. Others quietly moved north, to Canada. Outside of Lancaster, no one seemed to notice. Taxes continued to be paid. No federal force ever arrived to enforce the loyalty of the small village.

A rumor went around in 1864 that a large Confederate army was building in Canada, poised to invade from the north. Town Line became a dangerous place for the few southern sympathizers left. Most of those remaining moved to Canada and, once again, Lancaster became the quiet little village in upstate New York, that nobody ever heard of.

Impatient to get on with it, Dade County “symbolically” seceded both from Georgia as well as the Union back in 1860. Officially, Dade County seceded with Georgia in 1861, and rejoined with the rest of the state in 1870, but the deal was sealed on July 4, 1945, when a telegram from President Harry S. Truman was read at a celebration marking the County’s “rejoining”, of the Union.

The “Confederate Gibraltar”, Vicksburg Mississippi, fell on July 4, 1863.  The city wouldn’t celebrate another Independence Day for 80 years.

86C8E1D8-4085-47BE-B54D-C3FB11BF0363_w1023_r1_s
In 2011, the residents of Town Line, New York dressed up to mark the town’s sesquicentennial of secession from the Union

By October 1945 there legally remained but one part of the former Confederate States of America. The tiny little hamlet of Town Line, New York.

Even Georgians couldn’t help themselves, from commenting. 97-year-old Confederate General T.W. Dowling said: “We been rather pleased with the results since we rejoined the Union. Town Line ought to give the United States another try“. Judge A.L. Townsend of Trenton Georgia commented “Town Line ought to give the United States a good second chance“.

Townline-the_last_conferderacy

A courier express note arrived on October 7, 1945. “There are few controversies that are not susceptible to a peace time resolution” read the note, “if examined in an atmosphere of tranquility and calm rather than strife and turmoil. I would suggest the possibility of roast veal as a vehicle of peace. Why don’t you run down the fattest calf in Erie County, barbecue it and serve it with fixin’s in the old blacksmith shop where the ruckus started? Who can tell? The dissidents might decide to resume citizenship.”

The note was signed “Very Sincerely Yours, Harry Truman”.

Fireman’s Hall was the site of the barbecue, “The old blacksmith shop where the ruckus started” being too small for the assembled crowd. On October 28, 1945 residents adopted a resolution suspending the 1861 ordinance of secession by a vote of 90-23. The Stars and Bars of the Confederate States of America was lowered for the last time, outside the old blacksmith shop.

Alabama member of the United States House of Representatives John Jackson Sparkman, may have had the last word when he quipped: “As one reconstructed rebel to another, let me say that I find much comfort in the fact that you good people so far up in Yankee land have held out during the years. However, I suppose we grow soft as we grow older.”

4b4cf0f864c3dabcdb_IMG_7326[1]

October 9, 768 The Holy Roman Empire

The French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire remarked of “This agglomeration which was called and still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire”.

In Medieval Europe, most of the government powers that mattered were exercised by a chief officer to the King, called the “Mayor of the Palace”. This Maior Domus, or “Majordomo” was created during the Merovingian Dynasty to manage the household of the Frankish King. By the 7th century, the position had evolved into the power behind the throne of an all but ceremonial monarch.

In 751, the Mayor of the Palace forced King Childeric III off the throne and into a monastery.  He was the younger son of Charles “The Hammer” Martel and his wife Rotrude, destined to become sire to the founding father of the European Middle Ages.  He was Pepin III, “The Short”.

The Hammer
Charles “The Hammer” Martel who Saved Europe from an Invasion by the Ummayad Caliphate in 732 at the Battle of Tours

Pepin’s first act as King was to intercede with King Aistulf of the Lombards, on behalf of Pope Stephen II. Pepin wrested several cities away from the Lombards, forming a belt of central Italian territory which would later become the basis for the Papal States. In the first crowning of a civil ruler by a Pope, Stephen anointed Pepin “Patricius Romanorum” (Patrician of the Romans) in 754, naming his sons Charlemagne and Carloman as his heirs. It was the first vestige of a multi-ethnic union of European territories which would last until the age of Napoleon – the Holy Roman Empire.

Pepin died on campaign at age 54, his sons crowned co-rulers of the Franks on October 9, 768. Three years later, Carloman’s unexpected and unexplained death left Charlemagne undisputed ruler of the Frankish kingdom.

images (3)

Charlemagne led an incursion into Muslim Spain, continuing his father’s policy toward the Church when he cleared the Lombards out of Northern Italy.  He Christianized the Saxon tribes to his east, sometimes under pain of death.

Pope Leo III was attacked by Italian enemies in the streets of Rome, who attempted unsuccessfully to cut out his tongue. For the third time in a half-century, a Pope had reached out to the Frankish Kingdom, for assistance.

Pope Leo crowned Charlemagne “Emperor” on Christmas day in the year 800, in the old St. Peter’s Basilica. The honor may have been mostly diplomatic, as the seat of what now remained of the Roman Empire, was in Constantinople. Nevertheless, this alliance between a Pope and the leader of a confederation of Germanic tribes, was nothing short of a tectonic shift in western political power.

By the time of his death in 814, Charlemagne was “Pater Europae”, the Father of Europe. German and French monarchies alike have traced their roots to his empire from that day, to this.

The title fell into disuse with the end of the Carolingian dynasty, until Pope John XII once again came under attack by Italian enemies of the Papacy. The crowning of Otto I began an unbroken line of succession, extending out eight centuries. Charlemagne had been the first to bear the title of Emperor. Otto I is regarded as the founder of the Holy Roman Empire, the date of his coronation in 962, as the founding.

Holy Roman Empire, 972-1000
Holy Roman Empire, 972-1000

Henry III deposed three Popes in 1046, personally selecting four out of the next five, after which a period of tension between the Empire and the Papacy lead to reforms within the church.

Simony (the selling of clerical posts) and other corrupt practices were restricted, ending lay influence in Papal selection.  After 1059, the selection of Popes was exclusively the work of a College of Cardinals.

The Papacy became increasingly politicized in the following years.  Pope Gregory decreed the right of investiture in high church offices to be exclusive to religious authorities.  Great wealth and power was invested in these offices, and secular authorities weren’t about to relinquish that much power.

Schism and excommunication followed.  Urban II, the Pope who preached the first crusade in 1095, couldn’t so much as enter Rome for years after his election in 1088.  The “anti-pope” Clement III ruled over the holy city at that time, with support from Henry IV.

HRE 1500

The Kingdom had no permanent capital, Kings traveled between multiple residences to discharge their duties.  It was an elective monarchy, though most Kings had sons elected during their lifetime, enabling them to keep the crown within the family.  Many of the dynastic families throughout history have their origins in the Holy Roman Empire.  The Hohenstaufen, Habsburg and Hohenzollern among the Germanic Kings, the French Dynasties of the Capetian, Valois and Bourbon, as well as the Iberian dynasties of the Castilla, Aragonia and Pamplona y Navarre.

The French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire remarked of “This agglomeration which was called and still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire”.

The Holy Roman Empire became bogged down in struggles of succession in the 18th century. There was the War of Spanish Succession. The War of Polish Succession. The Wars of Austrian Succession and of German Dualism. The Holy Roman Empire peaked in 1050, becoming increasingly anachronistic by the period of the French Revolution. The last Holy Roman Emperor was Franz II, Emperor of Austria and Germany, who abdicated and dissolved the Empire in 1806, following the disastrous defeat of the 3rd Coalition by Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte at Austerlitz, in 1804.

Napoleon sarcastically commented that the German states were always “becoming, not being”. Ironically, the policies of that “little corporal” directly resulted in the rise of German nationalism, clearing the way to a united German state in 1870, a polity which would go on humble the French state, in two world wars.

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