June 23, 1918 The Day the Clowns Cried

Strong men, bareback riders, trapeze performers and acrobats were killed instantly and others horribly maimed, as wooden circus cars telescoped into one another.  Confused and bleeding survivors stumbled from the wreckage, as gas-fed lanterns began to set fire to all that wood.

rome_hbo_image__3___medium_There is an oft-repeated but mistaken notion that the circus goes back to Roman antiquity.  The panem et circenses, (bread and circuses)” of Juvenal, ca AD100, refers more to the ancient precursor of the racetrack, than to anything resembling a modern circus. The only common denominator is the word itself, the Latin root ‘circus’, translating into English, as “circle”.

The father of the modern circus is the British Sergeant-Major turned showman, Philip Astley.  A talented horseman, Astley opened a riding school near the River Thames in 1768, where he taught in the morning and performed ‘feats of horsemanship’ in the afternoon.  Equestrian and trick riding shows were gaining popularity all over Europe at this time, performers riding in circles to maintain balance while standing on the backs of galloping horses.  It didn’t hurt matters, that the “ring” made it easier for spectators to view the event.

s-l1600These afternoon shows gained overwhelming popularity by 1770, and Astley hired acrobats, rope-dancers, and jugglers to fill the spaces between equestrian events.  The modern circus, was born.

From that day to this, the “Fancy Pants” dresses in red tailcoat and top hat, evocative of British fox hunting garb. This “Announcer” is commonly (and mistakenly) called the “ringmaster”, while the true ring master is the “equestrian director”, standing in the center of the ring and pacing horses for the riding acts.

In 1825, Joshuah Purdy Brown of Somers New York replaced the wooden structure common to European circuses with a canvas tent, around the time when cattle dealer Hachaliah Bailey bought a young African elephant, and began to exhibit the animal all over the country.

The exotic animal angle was a great success.  Other animals were added, and farmers were soon leaving their fields to get into the traveling menagerie business.  The unique character of the American traveling circus emerged in 1835, when 135 such farmers and menagerie owners combined with three affiliated circuses to form the American Zoological Institute.

Phineas Taylor Barnum and William Cameron Coup launched P.T. Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie & Circus in 1871, where the “museum” part was a separate exhibition of human and animal oddities.  It wouldn’t be long, before the ‘sideshow” became a regular feature of the American circus.


There have been no fewer than 81 major circuses in American history, and countless “Dog & Pony” shows, programs so small as to include only a few family members and an assistant or two, with a couple of trained animals.  And all this time, I thought ‘Dog & Pony Show’ referred to the United States Congress.

The ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ closed for the last time on Sunday, May 21 2017, when ‘animal rights activists’ and changing tastes in entertainment finished the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus, ending a 146-year run.

In the mid-19th century, German animal trainer Carl Hagenbeck toured Europe with “ethnographical” spectacles, combining animals with native peoples such as the Sámi of the Scandinavian peninsula, complete with reindeer and sleds. Hagenbeck was among the first to develop animal training methods based on trust and reward rather than pain Hagenbeck-Wallace_Circusand fear, his demonstrations emphasizing the animal’s intelligence and tractability over ferocity.

In 1906, Hagenbeck sold his traveling animal show to American circus operator Benjamin Wallace, before going on to develop open zoological gardens and native panoramas which would be familiar to today’s zoo enthusiast, rather than the barred cells of his day.

The American war machine was spinning up to peak operational capacity in 1918, as the industrial might of the nation pursued an end to the war ‘over there’.

Hagenbeck-Wallace was one of the premier circuses of the day, moving about the country on three trains and employing no fewer than 1,000 roustabouts and assorted performers.

In the small hours of  June 22, an engineer with the Michigan Central Railroad was at the wheel of Train No. 41, an empty 21-car troop train.  Automatic signals and flares and at least one frantic signalman should have warned the driver that a stalled train lay on the track ahead, but he missed them all.  Alonzo Sargent was asleep at the wheel.

The following day, newspapers across the country told the story of  what happened next.


On June 22, the circus was scheduled to appear at the Show Grounds at 150th and Calumet Avenue in Hammond, Indiana.  In the early morning darkness, an overheated axle box required one train to make an unscheduled stop.  It was 4am and most of the circus’ employees were asleep, when the Michigan Central locomotive smashed into the rear of the stalled train.


The Hammond circus train wreck was one of the worst such accidents, in history.  Strong men, bareback riders, trapeze performers and acrobats were killed instantly and others horribly maimed, as wooden circus cars telescoped into one another.  Confused and bleeding survivors stumbled from the wreckage, as gas-fed lanterns began to set fire to all that wood.

Hagenbeck-Wallace clown “Big Joe” Coyle

Those lucky enough to escape the horror were forced to watch in disbelief as friends, families and co-workers were incinerated alive.

Hours later a clown, “Big Joe” Coyle, could be seen weeping, beside the mangled bodies of his wife and two small boys.

127 were injured and an estimated 86 crushed or burned to death in the wreck.  The rumor mill went berserk.  Wild lions and tigers had escaped and were roaming the streets and back yards of Gary, Indiana.  Elephants died in an heroic attempt to put out the flames, spraying water on the burning wreckage with their trunks.

None of the stories were true.  The animals had passed through hours before on an earlier caravan, and now awaited a train which would never come.


The Showmen’s League of America was formed in 1913, with Buffalo Bill Cody its first President.  The group had recently purchased a 750-plot parcel at the Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois and called it “Showmen’s Rest”, having no idea their investment would be used so soon.

A mass grave was dug for the unidentified and unidentifiable.  Some of the dead were roustabouts or temporary workers, hired only hours or days earlier.  Some performers were known only by stage names, their gravestones inscribed with names like “Four-Horse Driver”,  “Baldy” and “Smiley”.


The Hagenbeck-Wallace circus was a big deal in those days.  Famed lion tamer Clyde Beatty was a member, as was a young Red Skelton, tagging along with his father, who worked as a clown.


Only two shows had to be canceled, as erstwhile ‘competitors’ Barnum & Bailey and others lent workers, performers and equipment.  The show would go on.

In the world of elephants, an upraised trunk carries connotations of joy, while a lowered trunk symbolizes mourning.  At the Woodlawn cemetery of Chicago, five elephant statues circumscribe the mass grave of clowns, trapeze artists, strongmen and other circus performers.  Each has a foot raised with a ball underneath.  Every trunk, hangs low.  The largest of the five bears the inscription, “Showmen’s League of America.”  On the other four are inscribed the words “Showmen’s Rest”.


June 22, 1807 Impressed

British envoys delivered proclamations reaffirming the practice of impressment, amounting to the kidnapping of sailors and forcing their labor aboard British ships. In total, the Royal Navy impressed over 9,000 sailors claiming to be American citizens, becoming the driving force behind the United States going to war with England, in 1812.

The Napoleonic Wars took place between 1799 and 1815, pitting a series of seven international coalitions against the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte and his Grande Armée.  The former American colonies benefited from the European conflict, remaining on the sidelines and doing business with both sides.  Within a ten-year period, the fledgling United States had become one of the world’s largest neutral shippers.

In 1807, two third-rate French warships were penned up in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, blockaded by a number of English warships outside of the harbor.

The American frigate, USS Chesapeake

London born Jenkin Ratford was an English sailor who deserted the British Navy and defected to the neutral United States.  This story might have ended better for him had he not run his mouth, but that wasn’t this guy.  Ratford couldn’t resist taunting British officers, boasting of his escape to the “land of liberty”

The USS Chesapeake was preparing for a Mediterranean cruise with Ratford aboard, when she emerged from Norfolk, Virginia.  Her decks were laden with supplies and stores of every kind, and her guns unwisely stored.  Chesapeake was nowhere near combat ready when she was approached by the HMS Leopard on June 22.

The Chesapeake’s commander, Commodore James Barron, was unconcerned when the Leopard, under the command of Captain Salusbury Pryce Humphreys, asked permission to board.  Lieutenant John Meade of Her Majesty’s Navy presented Barron with a search warrant.  Barron declined to submit, and the officer returned to the Leopard.

Chesapeake_LeopardHumphreys then used a hailing trumpet and ordered the American ship to comply, to which Barron responded “I don’t hear what you say”. Humphreys fired two rounds across Chesapeake’s bow, followed immediately by four broadsides.

Chesapeake fired a single shot before striking colors and surrendering.  Humphreys refused the surrender and boarded, taking Ratford and three American born sailors with them when they left.

There was little resistance, yet the “Chesapeake-Leopard Affair” had left three American crewmembers dead, and 18 wounded.

American public opinion was outraged over the humiliation, as the four men were transported to Halifax for trial.   Federalists and Democratic-Republicans were united as never before.  President Thomas Jefferson remarked “Never since the Battle of Lexington have I seen this country in such a state of exasperation as at present, and even that did not produce such unanimity.”

The English court found all four guilty of desertion and hanged Ratford by the fore yardarm of his former vessel, HMS Halifax.  The three Americans, David Martin, John Strachan, and William Ware, were sentenced to 500 lashes.

With the puny American navy deployed to the Mediterranean to check the Barbary pirates, President Jefferson’s options were limited to economic retaliation.  The Embargo Act of 1807 intended to extract concessions from France and Great Britain, instead had the effect of imposing crippling setbacks on some industries, while others railed against government interference in the private economy.  Many came to the conclusion that the only solution, lay in violence.

Political cartoon depicting merchants harassed cursing the “Ograbme”—“embargo” spelled backwards.

British envoys delivered proclamations reaffirming the practice of impressment,  amounting to the kidnapping of sailors and forcing their labor aboard British ships.  In total, the Royal Navy impressed over 9,000 sailors claiming to be American citizens, becoming the driving force behind the United States going to war with England, in 1812.

Despite being wounded, Barron was blamed for the “Chesapeake-Leopard Affair”.  A court-martial suspended him from service for five years, without pay.   Commodore Stephen Decatur was one of the presiding officers at the court-martial. In 1820, Barron challenged Decatur to a duel, killing his fellow Commodore over comments concerning the 1807 incident.

Undergoing a refit in Boston Harbor in 1813, USS Chesapeake was challenged to single combat by Captain Philip Broke, commanding the British frigate HMS Shannon.

Chesapeake_MillUnited States Naval Captain James Lawrence was eager to comply, confident in the wake of a number of American victories in single-ship actions.

It was a Big mistake.

All of Boston turned out that June day, to watch the fight.  Cheers went out across the docks and from scores of private vessels across Boston Harbor, as Chesapeake slipped her moorings and glided out of the harbor.

Boston authorities reserved dock space in expectation of a guest.  The arrival of a captured British frigate, so it was thought, was a foregone conclusion. Rooftops, hills and trees from Lynn to Malden and Cohasset to Scituate were crowded with spectators, come to watch the show.

The tale of the Battle of Boston Harbor must be a story for another day.  Suffice it to say that USS Chesapeake ended her career as the British frigate HMS Chesapeake, before being sold for scrap, in 1819.  Two-hundred years later, the ship’s timbers live on.  Part of the Chesapeake Mill in the historic village of Wickham, in Hampshire, England.

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.

June 21, 1633 And Yet, it Moves

There is a story about Galileo, which may or may not be true. After his conviction, the astronomer is said to have muttered “Eppur si muove” — “And yet it moves”.

Planet Earth exists at the center of the solar system, the sun and other celestial bodies revolving around it. That was the “geocentric” model of the solar system, from the time of antiquity.

The perspective was by no means unanimous.  The Greek astronomer and mathematician Aristarchus of Samos put the Sun in the center of the universe, in the third century BC.  Later Greek astronomers Hipparchus and Ptolemy agreed, refining Aristarchus’ methods to arrive at a fairly accurate estimate for the distance to the moon, but theirs remained the minority view.

Earth is at the center of this model of the universe created by Bartolomeu Velho, a Portuguese cartographer, in 1568. H/T: NASA/Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

In the 15th century, Polish mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus parted ways with the orthodoxy of his time, describing a “heliocentric” model of the universe placing the sun at the center.  The Earth and other bodies, according to this model, revolved around the sun.

Copernicus resisted publishing his ideas until the end of his life, fearing to offend the religious sensibilities of the time. Legend has it that he was presented with an advance copy of his “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) as he awakened on his death bed from a stroke-induced coma. He took one look at his book, closed his eyes, and never opened them again.

Copernicus’ ‘heliocentric’ view of the universe.

The Italian physicist, mathematician, and astronomer Galileo Galilei came along, about a hundred years later. Galileo has been called the “Father of Modern Observational Astronomy”, his improvements to the telescope and resulting astronomical observations supporting the Copernican heliocentric view.

They also brought him to the attention of the Roman Inquisition.

Biblical references such as, “The Lord set the Earth on its Foundations; it can Never be Moved.” (Psalm 104:5) and “And the Sun Rises and Sets and Returns to its Place.” (Ecclesiastes 1:5) were taken at the time as literal and immutable fact, becoming the basis for religious objection to the heliocentric model.

Galileo faces the Roman Inquisition

Galileo was brought before inquisitor Vincenzo Maculani for trial in 1633. The astronomer backpedaled before the Inquisition, but only to a point, testifying in his fourth deposition on this day in 1633, that “I do not hold this opinion of Copernicus, and I have not held it after being ordered by injunction to abandon it. For the rest, here I am in your hands; do as you please”.

There is a story about Galileo, which may or may not be true. After his conviction, the astronomer is said to have muttered “Eppur si muove” — “And yet it moves”.

The Inquisition condemned the astronomer to “abjure, curse, & detest” his Copernican heliocentric views, returning him to house arrest at his villa in 1634, there to spend the rest of his life. Galileo Galilei, the Italian polymath who all but orchestrated the transition from late middle ages to  scientific Renaissance, died on January 8, 1642, desiring to be buried in the main body of the Basilica of Santa Croce, next to the tombs of his father and ancestors.  His final wishes were ignored at the time, though they would be honored some ninety-five years later, when Galileo was re-interred in the basilica, in 1737.

Basilica of Santa Croce, in Florence

Often, atmospheric conditions in these burial vaults lead to a natural mummification of the corpse. Sometimes, they look almost lifelike. When it came to the saints, believers took this to be proof of the incorruptibility of these individuals, and small body parts were taken as holy relics.

Such a custom seems ghoulish to us today, but the practice was was quite old by the 18th century.  Galileo is not now and never was a Saint of the Catholic church, quite the opposite.  The Inquisition had judged the man an enemy of the church, a heretic.

“A bust of Galileo at the Galileo Museum in Florence, Italy. The museum is displaying recovered parts of his body”. H/T New York Times

Possibly, the condition of Galileo’s body made him appear thus “incorruptible”.  Be that as it may, Anton Francesco Gori removed the thumb, index and middle fingers on March 12, 1737, the digits with which Galileo wrote down his theories of the cosmos. The digits with which he adjusted his telescope.

The other two fingers and a tooth disappeared in 1905, leaving the middle finger from Galileo’s right hand on exhibit at the Museo Galileo in Florence, Italy.  Locked in a glass case, the finger points upward, toward the sky.

23galileo2-cnd-popupSome 100 years later, two fingers and a tooth were purchased at auction, and have since rejoined their fellow digit at the Museo Galileo. To this day, these remain the only human body parts, in a museum otherwise devoted to scientific instrumentation.

Nearly four-hundred years after his death, Galileo’s extremity points upward, toward the glory of the cosmos.  Either that, or the finger rises in eternal defiance, flipping the bird to the church which had condemned him.

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January 7, 1927 Harlem Globetrotters

No less a figure than Wilt Chamberlain once said “Meadowlark was the most sensational, awesome, incredible basketball player I’ve ever seen. People would say it would be Dr. J or even Jordan. For me it would be Meadowlark Lemon”.

Twenty years before the integration of professional sports, 24-year-old Abraham Saperstein organized a basketball team.  He called his club the “Savoy Big Five,” after the famous Savoy Ballroom of Chicago, home to such Jazz greats as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald and Woody Herman.

Abe SapersteinAt least, that’s what the official team history says, except the Savoy didn’t open until 1927.  We may have to just go with it.

Saperstein renamed his club the “Harlem Globetrotters” despite their being from Chicago, the team arriving in a model T Ford for their debut game on January 7, 1927.

The last two years had been nothing but exhibition games before dances. Now, the big game in Hinckley, Illinois would be played in front of 300 fans, with a total game payout of $75.

The squad toured Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa, playing almost every night against any and all challengers.  Despite a height of 5’3″, Saperstein himself sometimes suited up, to fill in for an injured player.

The Globetrotters played their 1000th game in Iron Mountain, Michigan, in 1934.

Goose TatumIn 1941, Negro League 1st baseman Reece “Goose” Tatum caught Saperstein’s eye. A multi-sport athlete and teammate of Satchel Paige, Tatum would entertain crowds with comedic routines, whenever he put a runner out.  6’4″ with an 84″ wingspan and able to touch his knees without bending, Tatum is credited with inventing the hook shot, an early version of the “skyhook” that made Kareem Abdul-Jabbar famous, 30 years later

Tatum was the original “Clown Prince” of the Globetrotters, though the title is more often associated with Meadowlark Lemon and his confetti-in-the-water-bucket routine. Tatum combined natural athletic ability with a comedic timing that would change the whole direction of the club. When he passed away in 1967 at age 45, sports reporter Lawrence Casey of the Chicago Daily Defender remarked, “Like Joe Louis in boxing, Babe Ruth in baseball, Bobby Jones in golf, Goose Tatum was king of his chosen sport.”

Bob-KarstensWhen Goose was drafted into the Army Air Corps in 1942, the Globetrotters signed their third caucasian, the first-ever white player to be offered a contract.  Bob Karstens, the newest showman on the team, created the signature pregame “Magic Circle,” the behind-the-back shot, the “yo-yo” basketball and the “goofball,” a basketball filled with weights to give it a crazy bounce.

In the early 1940s, the Harlem Globetrotters were the most famous, and most profitable, professional basketball franchise in the world.

A near-fatal car accident cost Boid Buie his left arm when he was 13. Never a great athlete before the crash, Buie worked so hard on his goals that he became the “One Armed Firecracker”. He signed with the Globetrotters in 1946 and played 9 seasons as a starter, averaging 14 points per game. Ever since the 2011 Elite Showcase Basketball Classic, the MVP Award is presented in the name of Boid Buie.

download (2)The Globetrotters were a serious basketball team in the early years, winning the World Professional Basketball Tournament as late as 1940. The club worked more gag routines into their game throughout the late 40s and 50s, as the newly founded NBA gained popularity.  Finally, the team became better known for entertainment, than for sport.

“Playing the bones” has a musical history going back to ancient China, Egypt, Greece and Rome, part of 19th century minstrel shows and traditional to musical genres ranging from Irish to Bluegrass to Zydeco. Freeman Davis’ “Brother Bones” recording of the 1925 jazz standard “Sweet Georgia Brown” became the Globetrotters’ theme song, in 1952.

Ba Da Da, Dunt Da Da Da, Dunt Da Da Da Da… Now try to keep that out of your head.

Former NBA Baltimore Bullets point guard Louis “Red” Klotz formed an exhibition team in 1952 to play against the Globetrotters. He called his team the Washington Generals, in a nod to future president Dwight Eisenhower.

The Generals played serious basketball while their opponents juggled balls, spun them on fingertips, and made trick shots. The two teams played 13,000 games between 1953 and 1995, of which the Generals actually won 6.


Those of us who came of age in the 70s remember Curley Neal and Meadowlark Lemon, who joined the club in 1954. Who remembers that Wilt “the Stilt” Chamberlain joined the team, four years later? Chamberlain would be the first Globetrotter to have his jersey retired.

Chamberlain and the Globetrotters did their part to warm the Cold War, with a nine game series in Moscow, in 1959. The Generals stayed home, for this series the opponent was the “Chinese Basketeers”.  At first slow to catch on, the audience of 14,000 sat in stupefied silence, finally warming on the realization that this was more show than sport.  The team was paid the equivalent of $4,000 per game which could only be spent in Moscow, prompting the American press to observe that the Soviets were finally becoming capitalists.

fd890540b6931e8f9c42a98cefb76083Abe Saperstein passed away in 1966, at the age of 63. The owner and founder of the Harlem Globetrotters, he was also founder and first Commissioner of the American Basketball League.  Under Saperstein’s direction, the ABL was the first basketball league to institute the 3-point rule, in 1961.  Saperstein was inducted into the Basketball of Fame in 1971, and the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, in 2005.

Here’s a great piece of sports trivia. At 5’3″, Abe Saperstein is the shortest male inductee in the Professional Basketball Hall of Fame, according to his Wikipedia page.

Abe Saperstein was gone but his creation went on, signing Olympic Gold Medalist Lynette Woodard the first-ever female player in 1985. Pope John Paul II became an honorary Globetrotter in 1986, in a ceremony in front of 50,000 in Saint Peter’s Square.


There are nine honorary Globetrotters, including Henry Kissinger, Bob Hope, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Whoopi Goldberg, Nelson Mandela, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Pope Francis and Jesse Jackson. Jesse Owens, the track star who stuffed Adolf Hitler’s “master race” at the 1936 Berlin olympics, accompanied the Globetrotters to Berlin in 1951. Bill Cosby and Magic Johnson are both signed to $1 a year lifetime contracts, though Cosby’s contract was increased to $1.05 in 1986.

Ninety-one years after their founding, the Harlem Globetrotters show no signs of slowing down. In 2015, the team drafted 6’6″ 2015 college slam dunk champion LaQuavius Cotton from Mississippi’s Delta State University, and trick shot expert “Dude Perfect” of Mickinney, Texas.

How do you not root for a team with two guys named LaQuavius Cotton and Dude Perfect?

img-20111116-00164Prior to a 2011 visit to Dallas, the Globetrotters emailed local media, challenging Globetrotter nation to a H.O.R.S.E. competition.   If you’re not familiar, a player takes a shot. Any shot.  You can spin around and bounce the ball off of your head if you like.  If you sink the basket, the next player has to sink the same shot.  Otherwise, they get an ‘H’.

The last one to spell ‘HORSE’, wins.

71-year-old Kay Seamayer of the “Granny Globetrotters” entered a video, sinking an old Meadowlark three-pointer, blindfolded. Kay is a motivational speaker who wants to encourage everyone to “Get up, Get out, and Get Your Move on”. She was only voted #2 in the HORSE challenge, but the lady would have had my vote.

Shortly before his death in 1999, Wilt Chamberlain paid homage to his favorite basketball player: “Meadowlark was the most sensational, awesome, incredible basketball player I’ve ever seen. People would say it would be Dr. J or even Jordan. For me it would be Meadowlark Lemon.”

American basketball player, actor and ordained Christian minister Meadow Lemon III, professionally known as Meadowlark Lemon, played over 16,000 games with the Harlem Globetrotters, between 1954 and 1994. He passed away two years ago almost to the day, in Scottsdale, Arizona.  He was 83.  Rest in Peace, Mr. Lemon.  You brought a lot of smiles to the little boy in me.


December 9, 536 Byzantium

Most histories of the Roman Empire end with some event along a 476-586A.D. timeline, but the Roman Empire in the east lived for another thousand years.

A certain type of politician loves nothing more than to divide us against one another for their own advantage, but that’s nothing new. The tyrant Theagenes of the Dorian city state of Megara destroyed the livestock of the wealthy in the late 7th century BC, in an effort to increase his support among the poor. It may have been this tactic which drove Byzas, son of the Greek King Nisos, to set out in 657BC to found the new colony of Byzantion.

The Oracle at Delphi advised Byzas to build his city “opposite the city of the blind”. Arriving at the Bosphorus Strait (“boos poros“, or “cow-ford”), the narrow channel dividing Europe from Asia and the Mediterranean from the Black Sea, the party judged the inhabitants of the eastern bank city of Chalcedon to be blind if not stupid, not to have recognized the advantages of the European side. There they set down the roots of what is today one of the ten largest cities, in the world.


Byzantium city leaders made the mistake of siding with Pescennius Niger, a pretender to the Roman throne during the “Year of the Five Emperors”, 193-194AD. Laid siege and virtually destroyed in 196 by the victorious Septimius Severus, the city was rebuilt and quickly regained the wealth and status it had formerly enjoyed as a center of trade at the crossroads of east and west.

Constantine the Great, Roman Emperor from 306 to 337, established a second residence at Byzantium in 330, officially establishing the city as “Nove Roma”:  New Rome. Later renamed in his honor, “Constantinople” became the capital of the Byzantine Empire and seat of the Roman Empire in the east.

Byzantine Empire and its vassal states, as it looked under Emperor Justinian the Great

The eastern and western Roman empires would separate and reunite in a succession of civil wars and usurpations throughout the 4th century, permanently dividing in two with the death of Emperor Theodosius I, in 395. The Western and Eastern Empires would co-exist for about 80 years.  Increasing barbarian invasions and internal revolts finally brought the western empire to an end when Emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed, in 476.

The Ostrogothic Kingdom which came to rule all of Italy was briefly deposed, when the Byzantine General Belisarius entered Rome on December 9, 536. The Ostrogothic garrison left the city peacefully, briefly returning the old capital to its Empire. Fifty years later, there would be  little to defend against the invasion of the Lombards.  By 586, the Western Roman Empire had permanently ceased to exist.

Most histories of the Roman Empire end with some event along this 476-586 timeline, but the Roman Empire in the east would live for another thousand years. With traditions, customs and language drawn more heavily from the Greek than those of the Latin, the Byzantine Empire would last beyond the birth of Columbus, one of the most powerful economic, cultural, and military forces on the Eurasian landmass.

Theodosian walls
Theodosian walls

In 413, construction began on a formidable system of defensive walls, protecting Constantinople against attack by land or sea. Called the “Theodosian Walls” after the child Emperor Theodosius II, these fortifications were built on the orders of the Praetorian Prefect Anthemius, as a defensive measure against the Huns. One of the most elaborate defensive fortifications ever built, the Theodosian Walls warded off sieges by Avars, Arabs, Rus’, Bulgars and others. This, the last great fortification of antiquity, would fall only twice. First amidst the chaos of the 4th Crusade in 1203, and finally to the age of gunpowder.

Between the mid-5th and early 13th centuries, Constantinople was the largest and wealthiest city in all Europe. Located along the 4,000-mile long “spice roads” at the confluence of east and west, the city was guardian to some of the holiest relics in all Christendom, including the Crown of Thorns and the True Cross.  Constantinople was home to some of the architectural masterpieces of the age, including the Greek Orthodox cathedral of Hagia Sophia, the Hippodrome, and the Golden Gate of the Land Walls. The vast Imperial library of the University of Constantinople was home to no fewer than 100,000 volumes and ancient texts, including some of the last remnants of the ancient library of Alexandria.

Hagia Sophia, interior

The Byzantine empire entered a period of decline in the 13th century, following the devastation of the fourth crusade.  Constantinople would experience a brief recovery following the restoration of Nikephoros Palaiologos as sole Emperor in 1261, as territories and population of the greater Byzantine Empire were swallowed up by the fledgling Ottoman Empire.

Mehmed II
Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, “The Conqueror”

By mid-15th century, the former seat of the Byzantine Empire was little more than an island.

Constantinople, one of the most heavily fortified cities on the planet, fell in the wake of a 50-day siege to an army of 150,000, and the siege cannon of 22-year old Sultan Mehmed II, ruler of the Ottoman Turks.  It was May 29, 1453.

Constantinople, now Istanbul, became an Islamic stronghold.  Istanbul would remain seat of the Ottoman Empire until joining the losing side in WW1.  The Ottoman Empire was partitioned in the wake of the Great War, creating the modern contours of the Arab World and the Republic of Turkey, with its economic, cultural, and historic center of Istanbul.

Siege of Constantinople, 1453
Siege of Constantinople, 1453

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



November 22, 1923 Black Tom Explosion

On July 30, 1916, the Black Tom terminal had over two million pounds of ammunition in freight cars, and one hundred thousand pounds of TNT on a nearby Barge.

In the early months of World War I, Britain’s Royal Navy swept the seas of the Kaiser’s ships and blockaded ports in Germany. The United States was neutral at the time, and more than a hundred German ships sought refuge in US harbors.

maxresdefaultThe blockade made it impossible for the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary to import war materiel from overseas, while Great Britain, France, and Russia continued to buy products from US farms and factories. American businessmen were happy to sell to any foreign customer who had the cash, but for all intents and purposes, such trade was limited to the allies.

To the Central Powers, such trade had the sole purpose of killing their boys on the battlefields of Europe.

The first and most overt reaction from the Kaiser came in the form of unrestrained submarine warfare, when even vessels flying the flags of neutral countries were attacked. Less apparent at the time, was the covert campaign of sabotage carried out by German agents on US soil.

“Black Tom” was originally an island in New York Harbor, next to Liberty Island. So called after a former resident, by WWI, landfill had expanded the island to become part of Jersey City. The area contained a mile-long pier with warehouses and rail lines, and served as a major hub in the trade of war materiel to the allies.

On July 30, 1916, the Black Tom terminal had over two million pounds of ammunition in freight cars, and one hundred thousand pounds of TNT on a nearby Barge.

Guards discovered a series of small fires around 2:00am. Some of them tried to put them out while others fled, fearing an explosion. The first and loudest blast took place at 2:08am, a detonation massive enough to be estimated at 5.5 on the Richter scale.  People from Maryland to Connecticut were awakened in what they thought was an earthquake. The walls of Jersey City’s City Hall were cracked as shrapnel flew through the air. Windows broke as far as 25 miles away, while fragments embedded themselves in the clock tower at the Jersey Journal building in Journal Square, over a mile away. The clock stopped at 2:12 am.

Stained Glass windows were shattered at St. Patrick’s Church, and Ellis Island was evacuated to Manhattan.  Damage done to the Statue of Liberty alone was valued at over $2 million in today’s dollars. To this day, the ladder to the Statue of Liberty’s torch, remains off limits to visitors.

Known fatalities in the explosion included a Jersey City police officer, a Lehigh Valley Railroad Chief of Police, a ten week old infant, and the barge captain.

black-tom-island-explosionThe explosion at Black Tom was the most spectacular, but by no means the only such attack. The archives at cia.gov reports that “[B]etween 1915 and spring 1917, 43 American factories suffered explosions or fires of mysterious origin, in addition to the bombs set on some four dozen ships carrying war supplies to the Allies”.

Among those responsible for the Black Tom explosion was Naval Lieutenant Lothar Witzke, arrested on February 1, 1918, in Nogales, AZ. Witzke was convicted by court martial and sentenced to death, though President Wilson would later commute the sentence to life.

By 1923, most countries were releasing POWs from the “Great War”, including spies. A prison report from Leavenworth shows Witzke heroically risking his life in prison, entering a boiler room after an explosion and probably averting disaster. It may be on that basis that he was finally released.  Imperial German Navy Lieutenant Lothar Witzke was pardoned by President Calvin Coolidge on November 22, 1923, and deported to Berlin, where a grateful nation awarded him the Iron Cross, 1st and 2nd Class.


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November 3, 1954 Godzilla

Godzilla is a “Kaiju”, a Japanese word meaning “strange creature”. More specifically a “daikaiju”, meaning a really, really big one. He is the best known, but not the only such creature. You may remember other kaiju, including Gamera, Mothra, King Ghidorah, Mechagodzilla and Rodan.

In 1954, the Daigo Fukuryū Maru (“Lucky Dragon No.5”) was fishing near the Marshall Islands, in the northern Pacific. On March 1, 23 fishermen were witness to a western sky that “lit up like a sunrise”.  For eight minutes, they watched the mushroom cloud rise into the sky.  And then came the sound of the explosion. Next came the fallout, the fine white dust, calcinated coral of the Bikini atoll, falling like snow from the sky.

Daigo Fukuryū Maru
Daigo Fukuryū Maru

The fishermen returned to Yaizu, Japan two weeks later, all 23 suffering from nausea, headaches, bleeding from the gums, and other symptoms.  They were now “hibakusha”.   “Explosion-effected people”.

The atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were only nine years in the past, and a fierce anti-nuclear sentiment was building in Japan. In this context, there arose a metaphor for all that destruction.  Literally rising from the sea, this product of the Japanese entertainment industry took the form of a monster,  “Godzilla”, the first film released this day, in 1954..

Theatrical Release Poster, 1954

The name is a portmanteau, two words combined to form a third, of the Japanese word “gorira”, meaning gorilla, and “kujira”, meaning whale. Godzilla was the Gorilla Whale, with the head of a Tyrannosaur, Stegasaur-like plates on its back and skin modeled after the keloid scarring of the hibakusha.

The original Godzilla (“ɡodʑiɽa”) was awakened by atomic testing and impervious to any but a nuclear weapon. Emerging from the depths with its atomic breath, havoc and destruction was always accompanied by the distinctive roar, a sound effect made by rubbing a resin glove down the strings of a bass violin, then changing the speed at playback.

The actor who played Godzilla in the original films, Haruo Nakajima, was a black belt in Judo. His expertise was used to choreograph the monster’s movements, defining the standard for most of the Godzilla films.

Originally an “it”, Godzilla was usually depicted as a “he”, although that became a little confusing in the 1998 American remake “Zilla”, when he started laying eggs.

He was a Kaiju, a Japanese word meaning “strange creature”, more specifically a “daikaiju”, meaning a really, really big one. He is the best known, but certainly not the only such creature. You may remember other kaiju, including Gamera, Mothra, King Ghidorah, Mechagodzilla and Rodan.

Godzilla has appeared in 28 original films, with more in the works. Over the course of his existence he has been a hero, a villain, and a destructive but values-neutral force of nature.

Godzilla_Empire_RevealGodzilla got his own star on the Hollywood “Walk of Fame” in 2004, timed to coincide with the release of the 29th movie, “Godzilla: Final Wars.” Instead of nuclear weapons testing, this version was spawned by “environmental pollution”.  It takes the superheroes of the “Earth Defense Organization” (but, of course) to freeze him back into the ice of the South Pole. The film was a flop, grossing less than $12 million after a production budget of $19 million.

The franchise came roaring back ten years later, when Godzilla was released in 2014, grossing $200 million domestically and $529.1 million on worldwide sales.

A film franchise 63 years in the making is still going strong, and will continue to do so, for the forseeable future.  Godzilla: King of the Monsters is set to be released in 2019 and Godzilla vs. Kong, in 2020..