September 27, 1943 A Sweet, Sad Story

World War 2-era reporter Ernie Pyle lamented “The daily record for forty-four years, one of the most legendary figures of the Seven Seas, kept in her own hand, gone up in smoke in two minutes”.

Following the War of 1812, President James Madison ordered a series of coastal fortifications to be built, to protect the young nation from foreign invasion. Fort Pulaski, located on Cockspur Island between Savannah and Tybee Island, Georgia, is one of them.

Florence Margaret Martus was born there in 1868 where her father was an ordnance sergeant. She spent her childhood on the south channel of the Savannah River, at 17 moving in with her brother, keeper of the Cockspur Island Lighthouse.

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Sometime around 1887 while still a young girl, Florence began waving at ships passing by. By night she’d use a lantern and a white handkerchief, by day.

It started with friends, working the river.  Harbor masters, bar pilots and tugboat captains.  Before long, “the waving girl” and her collie were familiar figures, greeting every ship that came or left the port of Savannah.  Sailors would look for her and salute in return. Vessels would blow their horns, but few ever met her in person.

The Waving Girl Statue
The Waving Girl Statue

Legends grew up around her. She had fallen in love with a sailor. She wanted him to find her when he returned buy he’d been lost at sea.

The sweet, sad truth was less dramatic than that. Florence later said, “That’s a nice story. But what got me started – I was young and it was sort of lonely on the island for a girl. At first I would run out to wave at my friends passing, and I was so tickled when they blew the whistle back at me“.

And so, Miss Martus would take out her handkerchief by day or light her lantern by night, and she would greet every vessel that came or went from the Port of Savannah.  Every one of them.  Some 50,000, over 44 years.

Florence Martus
Florence Margaret Martus

In 1893, Martus and her brother braved hurricane conditions, rowing out to save several men from a sinking boat.

She waved an American flag at the troop ship St. Mihiel after WWI, on its return to Savannah carrying the United States Army of the Rhine.

“The Waving Girl” had taken it upon herself to greet every single ship entering or leaving the Port of Savannah, from a young girl until her old age.

She stopped only when she was forced to do so when her brother, then 70, had to leave his lighthouse job and the home that went with it.

All that time she kept a careful record of every ship:  name, date, where it was from and the type of vessel.  It must have broken her heart to move because she burned the entire record, one night.  44-years’ worth. World War 2-era reporter Ernie Pyle lamented “The daily record for forty-four years, one of the most legendary figures of the Seven Seas, kept in her own hand, gone up in smoke in two minutes”.

Martus never reconciled herself to the move, saying, “It’s just like trying to dig up that big oak tree and get it to take root someplace else.”

The artist Felix de Weldon, who sculpted the United States Marine Corps Memorial outside Arlington National Cemetery erected a statue of the Waving Girl and her collie. You can see it in Morrell Park, on the west bank of the Savannah River.

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Florence Martus passed away on February 8, 1943, following a brief bout with bronchial pneumonia.  One of many Liberty ships built in Savannah during World War II, was named in her honor. The SS Florence Martus was officially christened seven months later, September 27, 1943.

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September 25, 2022 Gold Star Mothers and Families

If you see a Gold Star Banner this weekend or someone wearing a Gold Star Pin, don’t pass by. Say hello. Ask for the name of the daughter or the son who gave their all in the defense of this nation. And then say it. Say their name out loud. For they may be gone but they are never truly dead. Until we have forgotten their names.

Suppose you were to stop 100 randomly selected individuals and ask them:  

Of all the conflicts in American military history, which single battle accounts for the greatest loss of life“.  

I suppose you’d get a few Gettysburgs in there, and maybe an Antietam or two.  The Battle of the Bulge would come up and there’s bound to be a Tarawa or an Iwo Jima.  Maybe a Normandy.  I wonder how many would answer, Meuse-Argonne.

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The United States arrived late to the Great War, entering the conflict in April 1917 when President Woodrow Wilson asked permission of the Congress, for a “War to end all wars”.  American troop levels “over there” remained small throughout the rest of 1917, as the formerly neutral nation of  fifty million ramped up to a war footing.

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US Marines during Meuse-Argonne offensive of 1918

The trickle turned to a flood in 1918, as French ports were expanded to handle their numbers.  The American Merchant Marine was insufficient to handle the influx and received help from French and British vessels.  By August, every one of what was then forty-eight states had sent armed forces, amounting to nearly 1½ million American troops in France.

After four years of unrelenting war, French and British manpower was staggered, the two economies, nearing collapse.  Imperial Russia DID collapse dissolving into not one but two revolutions, freeing tens of thousands of German troops from the east, to the western front.  The American Expeditionary Force was arriving none too soon.

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“Gun crew from Regimental Headquarters Company, 23rd Infantry, firing 37mm gun during an advance against German entrenched positions. , 1918”, H/T Wikipedia

Following successful allied offensives at Amiens and Albert, Allied Supreme Commander Ferdinand Foch ordered General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing to take overall command of an offensive, intended to cut off the German 2nd Army. Some 400,000 troops were moved into the Verdun sector of northeastern France.  It was to be the largest AEF operation of World War I. With a half-hour to go before midnight on September 25, 2,700 guns opened up in a six hour bombardment against German positions in the Argonne Forest, along the Meuse River.

Montfaucon American Monument, World War I, France
Butte de Montfaucon, today

Some 10,000 German troops were killed or incapacitated by mustard and phosgene gas another 30,000 plus, taken prisoner.  The Allied offensive advanced six miles into enemy territory, but bogged down in the wild woodlands and stony mountainsides of the Argonne Forest.

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Meuse-Argonne American cemetery near Romagne, in France

The Allied drive broke down on German strong points like the hilltop monastery at Montfaucon and others, and fortified positions of the German “defense in depth”.

Pershing called off the Meuse-Argonne offensive on September 30, as supplies and reinforcements backed up in what can only be termed the Mother of All Traffic Jams.

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Fighting resumed four days later resulting in some of the most famous episodes of WW1 including the “Lost Battalion” of Major Charles White Whittlesey, and the single-handed capture of 132 prisoners by Corporal (later Sergeant), Alvin York.

The Meuse-Argonne offensive would last forty-seven days, resulting in the death of 26,277 American troops.  More than any other battle in American military history.  Another 95,786 were seriously wounded.

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Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, outside of Romagne, France

Grace Darling Siebold was prominent in Republican political circles, a personal friend to the wife of the future president, Calvin Coolidge. Grace’s son George was a 23-year-old realtor when the United States entered the war in April, 1917. Mother and son alike were enthusiastic supporters of the war effort. George enlisted to serve during the first few days.

George Siebold found civilian life, dull. Life in military aviation was anything but. Only the daring flew the rickety, unreliable aircraft of World War 1. It was said you knew the pilots not by the goggles and scarves they wore but rather the slings and the crutches. George got his wish. He would train outside of Toronto to fly for the Royal Flying Corps out of British Canada. He married his sweetheart Kathryn and shipped, out the following day.

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Gold Star Mother’s Monument At The Putnam County (NY) Veteran Memorial Park, photograph by James Connor

George sent frequent letters home to his newlywed wife Kathryn and to his mother, Grace. Grace focused on volunteer efforts visiting the wounded in hospital and helping to found American War Mothers forming a mutual support network and organizing hospital visits. George sailed the North Atlantic in January 1918, writing home how the troop ship in front of his took a torpedo, and sank. Once in France he joined the 148th aero squadron, a unit of American flyers serving under British officers. He wrote letters every week, with tales dogfights, crashed enemy aircraft and even a citation he received from the British government, for distinguished service.

Then in September, the letters stopped. A week went by and then a second, and a third. Grace searched the hospital wards for her son and finally reached out to the War Department. She was told the government didn’t “keep tabs” on those under British command.

There’s a story that Grace Siebold received a box on Christmas eve. The label read “Effects of deceased officer 1st Lieutenant George Vaughn Siebold, attached to the 148th Aero Squadron, British Royal Flying Corps”. The story isn’t entirely true the box arrived in October. Two weeks later, the war was over.

“Grief” she later explained “if self-contained, is self-destructive.” Grace continued to work with wounded veterans and reached out to other mothers of the fallen, providing consolation and the opportunity to take up the cause, just as Grace herself had done.

With two sons “over there” US Army Captain Robert L. Queissner created what is now called the “service flag” depicting a blue star, for every family member in the military during times of hostilities . If that service member was killed the blue star was replaced, with a gold star.

President Woodrow Wilson is believed to have coined the term, “Gold Star Mother”. In May of that year, Wilson approved a suggestion from the Women’s Committee of the Council of National Defenses, that such women wear black bands on the left arm bearing a gilt star for every family member who had given his life, on behalf of the nation.

A friend who lost her son Mark in Fallujah, calls it that most exclusive of clubs, no one ever wanted to join.

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Founded by Grace Siebold, American Gold Star Mothers Inc was established in 1929. In 1936, a joint resolution of congress designated the last Sunday in September Gold Star Mothers Day. President Franklin Roosevelt noted that “the American mother is the greatest source of the country’s strength and inspiration.” “We honor ourselves and the mothers of America” he said, “when we revere and give emphasis to the home as the fountainhead of the state.”

Today, Title 36 § 111 of the United States Code provides that the last Sunday in September be observed as Gold Star Mother’s Day, requesting that the president “issue a proclamation calling on United States Government officials to display the flag of the United States on all Government buildings, and the people of the United States to display the flag and hold appropriate meetings at homes, churches, or other suitable places, on Gold Star Mother’s Day as a public expression of the love, sorrow, and reverence of the people for Gold Star Mothers”.

“Gold Star Mothers, who suffered the loss of a son or daughter killed while serving in the military, joined thousands at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., for a Veterans Day ceremony and the 15th Anniversary Commemoration of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, Nov. 11, 2008. DoD photo by Army Staff Sgt. Michael J. Carde”

April 5 is set aside as Gold Star Spouse’s Day.

Recently, Presidents Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joseph Biden have signed such proclamations. President Obama expanded the occasion to Gold Star Mother’s and Family’s Day.

At first a distinction reserved only for those mothers who had lost sons and daughters in WW1, that now includes a long list of conflicts, fought over the last 100 years.  Today there are some 470,000 gold star families in this nation, of some 320 million. They are so few who pick up this heaviest of tabs, on behalf of the rest of us.

So, if you see a Gold Star Banner this weekend or someone wearing a Gold Star Pin, don’t pass by. Say hello. Ask for the name of the daughter or the son who gave their all in the defense of this nation. And then say it. Say their name out loud. For they may be gone but they are never truly dead. Until we forget their names.

May 8, 2022 A History of Mother’s Day

To my Mom and all the beautiful mothers out there, Happy Mother’s Day. This is your day. May it be the first, of many more.

Women in Rome

The earliest discernible Mother’s day comes to us from 1200-700BC, descending from the Phrygian rituals of modern day Turkey and Armenia. “Cybele” was the great Phrygian goddess of nature, mother of the Gods, of humanity, and of all the beasts of the natural world, her cult spreading throughout Eastern Greece with colonists from Asia Minor.

Much of ancient Greece looked to the Minoan Goddess Rhea, daughter of the Earth Goddess Gaia and the Sky God Uranus, mother of the Gods of Olympus. Over time the two became closely associated with the Roman Magna Mater, each developing her own following and worshipped through the period of the Roman Empire.

In ancient Rome, women partook of a festival strictly forbidden to Roman men. So unyielding was this line of demarcation that only women were permitted even to know the name of the deity.  For everyone else she was simply the “Good Goddess”. The Bona Dea.

Fun Fact: All Rome was aghast when Publius Clodius Pulcher dressed like a woman and sneaked into the Bona Dea, bent on seducing the wife of Julius Caesar. How that was supposed to work remains unclear but ol’ Pulcher was found out, and hurled from the premises. Unjust though it was Caesar divorced Pompeia nevertheless, saying that “Caesar’s wife must be beyond reproach”.

In the sixteenth century, it became popular for Protestants and Catholics alike to return to their “mother church” whether that be the church in which they were baptized, the local parish church, or the nearest cathedral. Anyone who did so was said to have gone “a-mothering”. Domestic servants were given the day off and this “Mothering Sunday”, the 4th Sunday in Lent, was often the only time when whole families could get together. Children would gather wild flowers along the way to give to their mothers or to leave, in the church. Over time the day became more secular, but the tradition of gift giving, continued.

Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis
Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis

Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis was a social activist in mid-19th century western Virginia.  Pregnant with her sixth child in 1858, she and other women formed “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs”, to combat the health and sanitary conditions leading at that time to catastrophic levels, of infant mortality.  Jarvis herself gave birth between eleven and thirteen times in one seventeen year period.  Only four of those children lived to adulthood.

Jarvis had no patience for the sectional differences that brought the nation to Civil War, or led her own locality to secede and form the state, of West Virginia.  She rejected a measure to divide the Methodist church into northern and southern branches.  She was willing help Union and Confederate soldier alike, if she could.  It was she alone who offered a prayer when others refused for Thornsbury Bailey Brown, the first Union soldier killed in the vicinity.

Anna Jarvis
Anna Jarvis

Following Jarvis’ death in 1905, her daughter Anna conceived of Mother’s Day as a way to honor her legacy and to pay respect for the sacrifices all mothers make, on behalf of their children.

Obtaining financial backing from Philadelphia department store owner John Wanamaker, Anna Jarvis organized the first official Mother’s Day celebration at a Methodist church in Grafton, West Virginia. That same day, thousands attended the first Mother’s Day event at Wanamaker’s store in Philadelphia.

Anna Jarvis resolved that Mother’s Day be added to the national calendar and a massive letter writing campaign ensued. On May 9, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a measure declaring the second Sunday of May, Mother’s Day.

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Anna Jarvis believed Mother’s Day to be a time of personal celebration, a time when families would gather to love and honor their mother.

In the early days she had worked with the floral industry to help raise the profile of Mother’s Day. By 1920 she had come to resent what she saw as over-commercialization, of the day.  Greeting cards seemed a pale substitute for the hand written personal notes she envisioned. Jarvis protested a Philadelphia candy maker’s convention in 1923 deriding confectioners, florists and even charities as “profiteers”. Carnations had become symbolic of Mother’s Day by this time and Jarvis resented that they were being sold at fundraisers.  She even protested at a meeting of the American War Mothers in 1925 where women were selling carnations, and got herself arrested for disturbing the peace.

Soon she was launching an endless series of lawsuits against those she felt had used the “Mother’s Day” name in vain.

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During the last years of her life, Anna Jarvis lobbied the government to take her creation off of the calendar, gathering signatures door-to-door to get the holiday rescinded. The effort was obviously unsuccessful.  The mother of mother’s day died childless in a sanitarium in 1948, her personal fortune squandered on legal fees.

Today some variation of Mother’s Day is observed from the Arab world to the United Kingdom. In the United States, Mother’s Day is one of the most commercially successful days of the year for flower and greeting card sales, and the biggest day of the year for long-distance phone calls. Church attendance is the third highest of the year behind only Christmas, and Easter. Many churchgoers celebrate the day with carnations:  colored if the mother is still living and white, if she has passed on.

To my Mom and all the beautiful mothers out there, Happy Mother’s Day. This is your day. May it be the first, of many more.

May 3, 1915 Keeping the Faith

“Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.”. – Moina Michael

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Dr. John McCrae

John McCrae was a physician and amateur poet from Guelph, Ontario. Following the outbreak of the “Great War” in 1914, he enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force at the age of 41.

Based on his age and training, Dr. McCrae could have joined the medical corps, but volunteered instead to join a fighting unit as gunner and medical officer.

McCrae had previously served in the Boer War.  This was to be his second tour of duty in the Canadian military.

Dr. McCrae fought in one of the most horrendous battles of the Great War, the second battle of Ypres, in the Flanders region of Belgium. Imperial Germany launched the first mass chemical attack in history at Ypres, attacking the Canadian position with chlorine gas on April 22, 1915. The Canadian line was broken but quickly reformed in an apocalyptic bloodletting lasting more than two full weeks.

Dr. McCrae later described the ordeal, in a letter to his mother:

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

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Stop and imagine for a moment please, what this looked like, what this horror smelled like, in color.

Dr. McCrae presided over the funeral of friend on May 3, fellow soldier Alexis Helmer, who had died in the battle. McCrae performed the burial service himself when he noted how quickly the red poppies grew on the graves of the fallen. Sitting in the back of a medical field ambulance just north of Ypres, he composed this poem, the following day.  He called the verse, “We Shall Not Sleep”. 

Today we remember Dr. McCrae’s work as:

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Moina Michael

Moina Belle Michael was born August 15, 1869 near Good Hope Georgia, about an hour’s drive east of Atlanta. She began teaching at age fifteen. Over a long career Michael worked in nearly every part of the Peach State’s education system.

In 1918 she was working at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries headquarters, in New York.  Browsing through the November Ladies Home Journal Moina came across Dr. McCrae’s poem. It was Saturday morning, November 9, 1918. 

Two days before the armistice.

John McCrae lay in his own grave by this time, having succumbed to pneumonia while serving in the No. 3 Canadian General Hospital, in Boulogne.  He was buried with full military honors at the Wimereux cemetery where his gravestone lies flat, due to the sandy, unstable soil.

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Michael had seen McCrae’s poem before but it got to her this time, especially that last part:

  “If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
      In Flanders fields”

Moina was so moved she made a personal pledge to “keep the faith”, vowing always to wear a red poppy, in honor of the dead. She scribbled a response, an ode to an act of remembrance on the back, of a used envelope.  She called it:

We Shall Keep the Faith

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a luster to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.

The vivid red flower blooming on the battlefields of Belgium, France and Gallipoli came to symbolize the staggering loss of life brought about by the Great War, the “War to End all Wars”. Before they had numbers, this was a war where the death toll from many single day’s fighting exceeded that of every war of the preceding century, military and civilian, combined.

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A century and more has come and gone since the events, told in this story. The red poppy is now an internationally recognized symbol of remembrance, lest we neglect to remember the lives lost in All wars. I keep one always, pinned to the visor of my car. It’s a reminder of where we come from, the prices paid to bring us to this place and to always keep the faith, with those who have come before.

April 30, 1900 An Ordinary Man

Driving that train,
high on cocaine.
Casey Jones you better,
watch your speed.
It’s a nice rhyme but the cocaine part is a lie, told and retold across generations, of popular culture. For most of us it’s all we will ever know of a hero, called Casey Jones.

Acts of heroism have a way of popping up in the most unexpected places. Ordinary people rising to the occasion, in the most extraordinary of circumstances.

Temar Boggs and Chris Garcia were two teenage boys who chased down a kidnapper – on their bicycles no less – to free a little girl. Eight-months pregnant mother-to-be Lauren Prezioso dove into an Australian undertow to save two boys, being swept out to sea. Six-year-old Bridger Walker threw himself in the path of a vicious dog to take the mauling directed at his little sister, only seconds earlier.

This is one of those stories.

Jonathon Luther Jones lived near Cayce Kentucky as a boy, and the nickname stuck. For reasons which remain unclear he preferred to spell it, “Casey”.

Casey Jones was a train man, working on the I.C.R.R. The Illinois Central Railroad.

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An example of the man’s character comes to us from 1895, when Jones was thirty-two. Outside Michigan City Mississippi, a group of children darted across the tracks, fewer than sixty yards from a speeding train.  Most made it across except one little girl, who froze in terror before the oncoming locomotive.

With fellow engineer Bob Stevenson hauling back on the emergency brakes and buying precious extra seconds, Jones ran across the running boards and inched his way down the pilot, better known as the “cow catcher”.

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Jonathon Luther “Casey” Jones

He was no trick rider.  No circus acrobat.  Casey Jones worked on the railroad and yet, bracing himself with his legs, Jones reached out and scooped up the terrified little girl, at the last possible fraction of a second. 

On this occasion, the man had every hope and expectation of remaining alive.  Five years later Casey Jones’ last act of heroism came in the face of certain, and violent death.

Casey Jones went to work for the Mobile & Ohio Railroad where he performed well, receiving first a promotion to brakeman, and then to fireman. He met Mary Joanna (“Janie”) Brady around this time, whose father owned the boarding house, where Jones lived. The pair fell in love and married on November 11, 1886, buying a house in Jackson Alabama where the couple raised their three children. By all accounts the man was sober and devoted to his work, a dedicated family man.

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Several crews from the Illinois Central Railroad (IC) were down with yellow fever in the summer of 1887. Fireman Jones went to work for the IC the following year, firing a freight run between Jackson, Tennessee, and Water Valley, Mississippi.

Casey Jones had a knack for these complex and powerful machines. He was good at what he did and an aggressive risk taker. Ambitious for advancement, Jones was issued nine citations for rules infractions over the course of his career, resulting in 145 days’ suspension.  He was well liked by fellow railroaders but widely regarded, as just this side of reckless.

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Jones achieved his lifelong goal of becoming an engineer in 1891.  He was well  known, for being on time. Jones insisted he’d never “fall down” and get behind schedule. People learned to set their watches by his train whistle, knowing he would always “get her there on the advertised” (time).

Jones moved his family to Memphis in 1900, transferring to the “cannonball run” between Chicago and New Orleans. The run was a four train passenger relay, advertising the fastest travel times in the history of the American railroad. Experienced engineers were worried about the ambitious schedule and some even quit. Jones saw the new itinerary as an opportunity for advancement.

How a steam locomotive, works

On this day in 1900, Engine #382 departed Memphis at 12:05am, ninety-five minutes behind schedule due to the late arrival of the first leg, of the relay. The Memphis to Canton, Mississippi run was 190 miles long and normally took 4 hours, 50 minutes at an average speed of 39 MPH. 95 minutes was a lot of time to make up but #382 was a fast engine and traveling “light” that night, with only six cars.

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Fireman Simeon “Sim” T. Webb

Fireman Simeon Taylor “Sim” Webb was one of the best. He would have to be. This would be a record breaking run.

Jones hit the Johnson bar, throttling #382 up to 80 MPH despite sharp turns and visibility reduced, by fog. There were two stops for water and a brief halt on a side track, to let another engine through. Despite all that, #382 made up most of those 95 minutes by the 155-mile mark. On leaving the side track in Goodman, Mississippi, Jones was only five minutes behind the advertised arrival, of 4:05am.

Jones was well acquainted with those last 25 miles into Vaughn Mississippi.  There were few turns and the engineer throttled his engine up to breakneck speed. He  was thrilled with his time, saying “Sim, the old girl’s got her dancing slippers on tonight!”

Unknown to both men there was a problem, up ahead. Three trains were in the station at Vaughn with a combined length of ten cars longer, than the main siding. Rail yard workers performed a “saw by” maneuver, backing #83 onto the main line and switching overlapping cars onto the “house track”. Then there was that problem with an air hose. Four cars remained stranded on the main line.

#382 sped through the final curve at 75MPH, only two minutes behind schedule. Clinging to the side board, Sim Webb was the first to see the red lights, of the caboose. “Oh my Lord”, he yelled, “there’s something on the main line!”

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Jones didn’t have a prayer of stopping in time. He was moving too fast. He reversed throttle and slammed the air brakes into emergency stop, screaming “Jump Sim, jump!” Sim Webb jumped clear with only 300 feet to go as the piercing shriek of the engine’s whistle, split the air.

Jones could have jumped. Having ordered Webb to do so demonstrated, the man understood the situation.  Casey Jones stayed on the train as “Ole 382” plowed through the red wooden caboose and three freight cars, before leaving the track.

By the moment of impact, Jones frantic efforts had slowed the engine down to 35 miles per hour. Untold numbers of passengers were saved from serious injury, or death. As the pieces came to a stop Jones himself, was the only fatality. His watch was stopped at 3:52am, only two minutes behind schedule.

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Adam Hauser of the New Orleans Times-Democrat was a passenger in a sleeper car, at the time of the wreck: “The passengers did not suffer” he said, “and there was no panic. I was jarred a little in my bunk, but when fairly awake the train was stopped and everything was still. Engineer Jones did a wonderful as well as a heroic piece of work, at the cost of his life”.

Legend has it that, when Jones’ body was removed his dead hands still clutched the whistle cord, and the brake.

Since that day Casey Jones has achieved mythological status, alongside the likes of Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan. “The Ballad of Casey Jones” was recorded by Mississippi John Hurt, Johnny Cash and the Grateful Dead, among others.

Jones’ son Charles was 12 at the time of  his father’s death at age 37. Jones’ daughter Helen, was 10.  The  youngest, John Lloyd (“Casey Junior”) was 4.  Janie received two life insurance payments totaling $3,000 as Casey was “Double Heading” at that time, as a member of two unions.   Casey Jones widow would receive no other compensation.  The Railroad Retirement Fund wouldn’t come about, for another 37 years.

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Mary Joanna “Janie” Brady Jones lived another 58 years and never had so much as a thought, of remarrying. The idea that the hero she married was intoxicated at the time of the accident was a thorn in her side, for the rest of her life. What’s more there were allegations that she herself, was an unfaithful wife. According to one version of the song she told her heartbroken children to stop crying. They had “another papa on the Salt Lake Line.”

One particularly snotty article in Time Magazine informed the reader the “Widow Jones” … “looks well and buxom,” in a piece that couldn’t so much as get Jones’ engine number right. To their credit, Time Magazine itself criticized their tone, in 2015. 57 years after Janie died, at the age of 92.

Janie Jones lived another 58 years. She wore black every day, for the rest of her life.

A Trivial Matter

In 1907, brakeman Jesus Garcia stuck to the controls to drive a flaming train away from the small mining town of Nacozari, in the Mexican state of Sonora. The train was carrying dynamite, and blew up,  Killing Garcia.  His quick actions had saved the town where Jesus Garcia is remembered as a hero, to this day.

April 29, 1944 The White Mouse

To WW2-era British Special Operations she was Hélène.  To the Maquis she was Andrée. Her New York Times obituary called her “The socialite who killed a Nazi, with her bare hands”. To the Gestapo who wanted her dead, she was the “White Mouse.”

It was March 1944 in occupied France, when the French Resistance leader Henri Tardivat found her, dangling from a tree. Her name was Nancy Wake, and she had just jumped from a B24 bomber, with a pocketful of classified documents. Tardivat couldn’t help himself. “I hope that all the trees in France bear such beautiful fruit this year”. “Don’t give me that French shit” she snapped, as she cut herself out of the tree.

Nancy Wake was not a woman to be trifled with.

Nancy Grace Augusta Wake was born in New Zealand and moved to Australia as a young girl. She later moved to Paris where she met her future husband, the wealthy French industrialist, Henri Fiocca.

As a freelance journalist, a Parisian newspaper sent Wake to Vienna in 1933 to interview a German politician, by the name of Adolf Hitler. There she witnessed firsthand the wretched treatment meted out to Austrian Jews by followers of the future dictator. She vowed she would oppose this man, by any means necessary.

She would get her chance in 1940 when the German Blitzkrieg tore through Belgium, the Netherlands and France.

The couple had the means to leave but chose to stay in France, to help the Maquis. The French Resistance. For two years, Nancy and her husband Henri worked to hide downed allied flyers and get them out, of Nazi occupied France.

With the Gestapo reading their mail and staking out the Fiocca home the writing was on the wall. Nancy fled while Henri remained in Paris, to continue the couples work with the resistance.

Henri would be captured and tortured before execution, to reveal the whereabouts of his wife. Nancy would not learn until after the war, the man never gave up her whereabouts.

The British SOE called her by the code name, Hélène. To the Maquis she was Andrée. It was during her flight from France that Wake earned the name which would stick, given by the Gestapo who wanted her dead. “White Mouse,” they called her, for her ability to hide in plain sight and to disappear, without a trace. “A little powder and a little drink on the way” she later explained “and I’d pass their (German) posts and wink and say, ‘Do you want to search me? God”, she said, “what a flirtatious little bastard I was.”

Once picked up on a train outside of Toulouse she spun a wild tale about being the mistress, of one of the guards. She pleaded with her captors that her husband could never know. Astonishingly, they let her go.

Wake eventually escaped occupied France moving first through the Pyrenees into Spain and then, to England. There she joined the British Special Operatives Executive (SOE). The training was intense: infiltration/exfiltration techniques, tradecraft, weapons, even hand-to-hand combat. Her trainers called her as competent, as the men in her class.

On April 29, 1944, Wake parachuted into the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of occupied France, part of a three-person team sent to support three Maquis organizations, operating in the region. She participated in a major combat operation pitting resistance members against the German wehrmacht. It was a major defeat for the Marquee. She later said she bicycled 500 km to bring a situation report, to her SOE handlers.

One day she found herself on an SOE team, on the inside of a German munitions factory. An SS guard nearly gave up the whole operation when he arrived, to investigate. Wake killed the man, with her bare hands. “They’d taught this judo-chop stuff” she later explained, “with the flat of the hand at SOE, and I practiced away at it. But this was the only time I used it – whack – and it killed him all right. I was really surprised.”

SOE official historian M. R. D. Foot said “her irrepressible, infectious, high spirits were a joy to everyone who worked with her”. Henri Tardivat may have given her the ultimate compliment, after the war. “She is the most feminine woman I know, until the fighting starts” he recalled. “Then, she is like five men.”

She was the most decorated woman of World War 2, awarded the George Medal by Great Britain, the United States Medal of Freedom, the Médaille de la Résistance by her adopted home nation, and three times, the Croix de Guerre. 

After the war

She worked for a time with the intelligence department at the British Air Ministry and dabbled in politics, after the war. She remarried, the union with RAF officer John Forward lasting 40 years until his death but producing, no children.

The White Mouse died of a chest infection on August 7, 2011, after a brief hospitalization. She was 98. Her New York Times obituary called her “The socialite who killed a Nazi, with her bare hands”.

She sold her medals along the way, because she needed the money. “There was no point in keeping them,” she said. “I’ll probably go to hell and they’d melt anyway.”

April 5, 1761, That Other Ride, You Never Heard About

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of…Sybil Ludington

“Listen my children and you shall hear,
Of the midnight ride of” …Sybil Ludington.

Wait…What?

Paul Revere’s famous “midnight ride” began on the night of April 18, 1775.  Revere was one of two riders, soon joined by a third, fanning out from Boston to warn of an oncoming column of “regulars”, come to destroy the stockpile of gunpowder, ammunition, and cannon in Concord.

paul-revereRevere himself covered barely 12 miles before being captured, his horse confiscated to replace the tired mount of a British sergeant.  Revere would finish his “ride” on foot, arriving at sunrise on the 19th to witness the last moments of the battle on Lexington Green.

Two years later, Patriot forces maintained a similar supply depot, in the southwest Connecticut town of Danbury.

William Tryon was the Royal Governor of New York, and long-standing advocate for attacks on civilian targets.  In 1777, Tryon was major-general of the provincial army.  On April 25th, the General set sail for the Connecticut coast of Long Island Sound with a force of 1,800, intending to destroy Danbury.

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Patriot Colonel Joseph Cooke’s small Danbury garrison was caught and quickly overpowered on the 26th, trying to remove food supplies, uniforms, and equipment.  Facing little if any opposition, Tryon’s forces went on a bender, burning homes, farms and storehouses.  Thousands of barrels of pork, beef, and flour were destroyed, along with 5,000 pairs of shoes, 2,000 bushels of grain, and 1,600 tents.

Colonel Henry Ludington was a farmer and father of 12, with a long military career.  A long-standing and loyal subject of the British crown, Ludington switched sides in 1773, joining the rebel cause and rising to command the 7th Regiment of the Dutchess County Militia, in New York’s Hudson Valley.

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In April 1777, Ludington’s militia was disbanded for planting season, and spread across the countryside.  An exhausted rider arrived at the Ludington farm on a blown horse, on the evening of the 26th, asking for help.  15 miles away, British regulars and a force of loyalists were burning Danbury to the ground.

The Dutchess County Militia had to be called up.  The Colonel had one night to prepare for battle, and this rider was done.  The job would have to go to Colonel Ludington’s first-born, his daughter, Sybil.

Born April 5, 1761, Sybil Ludington was barely sixteen at the time of her ride.  From Poughkeepsie to what is now Putnam County and back, the “Female Paul Revere” rode across the lower Hudson River Valley, covering 40 miles in the pitch dark of night, alerting her father’s militia to the danger and urging them to come out and fight.  She’d use a stick to knock on doors, even using it once, to fight off a highway bandit.

By the time Sybil returned the next morning, cold, rain-soaked, and exhausted, most of 400 militia were ready to march.

Arnold’s forces arrived too late to save Danbury, but inflicted a nasty surprise on the British rearguard as the column approached nearby Ridgefield.  Never outnumbered by less than three-to-one, Connecticut militia was able to slow the British advance until Ludington’s New York Militia arrived on the following day.  The last phase of the action saw the same type of swarming harassment, as seen on the British retreat from Concord to Boston, early in the war.35 miles to the east of Danbury, General Benedict Arnold was gathering a force of 500 regular and irregular Connecticut militia, with Generals David Wooster and Gold Selleck Silliman.

Though the British operation was a tactical success, the mauling inflicted by these colonials ensured that this was the last hostile British landing on the Connecticut coast.

The British raid on Danbury destroyed at least 19 houses and 22 stores and barns.  Town officials submitted £16,000 in claims to Congress, for which town selectmen received £500 reimbursement.  Further claims were made to the General Assembly of Connecticut in 1787, for which Danbury was awarded land.  In Ohio.

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At the time, Benedict Arnold planned to travel to Philadelphia, to protest the promotion of officers junior to himself, to Major General.  Arnold, who’d had two horses shot out from under him at Ridgefield, was promoted to Major General in recognition for his role in the battle.  Along with that promotion came a horse, “properly caparisoned as a token of … approbation of his gallant conduct … in the late enterprize to Danbury.”  For now, the pride which would one day be his undoing, was assuaged.The Keeler Tavern in Ridgefield is now a museum.  The British cannonball fired into the side of the building, remains there to this day.

Henry Ludington would become Aide-de-Camp to General George Washington, and grandfather to Harrison Ludington, mayor of Milwaukee and 12th Governor of Wisconsin.

Gold Silliman was kidnapped with his son by a first marriage by Tory neighbors, and held for Nearly seven months at a New York farmhouse.  Having no hostage of equal rank with whom to exchange for the General, Patriot forces went out and kidnapped one of their own, in the person of Chief Justice Judge Thomas Jones, of Long Island.

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Mary Silliman was left to run the farm, including caring for her own midwife, who was brutally raped by English forces for denying them the use of her home.  The 1993 made-for-TV movie “Mary Silliman’s War” tells the story of non-combatants, pregnant mothers and farm wives during the Revolution, as well as Mary’s own negotiations for her husband’s release from his Loyalist captors.

IMG_6632General David Wooster was mortally wounded at the Battle of Ridgefield, moments after shouting “Come on my boys! Never mind such random shots!”  Today, an archway marks the entrance to Wooster Square, in the East Rock Neighborhood of New Haven. 

Sybil Ludington received the thanks of family and friends and even that of George Washington.  She then stepped off the pages of history.

Paul Revere’s famous ride would have likewise faded into obscurity, but for the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  Eighty-six years, later.

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“Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year. He said to his friend, “If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,–
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm. ”Then he said “Good-night!” and with muffled oar
Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
Just as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
The Somerset, British man-of-war;
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
Across the moon like a prison bar,
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified
By its own reflection in the tide. Meanwhile, his friend through alley and street
Wanders and watches, with eager ears,
Till in the silence around him he hears
The muster of men at the barrack door,
The sound of arms, and the tramp of feet,
And the measured tread of the grenadiers,
Marching down to their boats on the shore. Then he climbed the tower of the Old North Church,
By the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,
To the belfry chamber overhead,
And startled the pigeons from their perch
On the sombre rafters, that round him made
Masses and moving shapes of shade,–
By the trembling ladder, steep and tall,
To the highest window in the wall,
Where he paused to listen and look down
A moment on the roofs of the town
And the moonlight flowing over all. Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead,
In their night encampment on the hill,
Wrapped in silence so deep and still
That he could hear, like a sentinel’s tread,
The watchful night-wind, as it went
Creeping along from tent to tent,
And seeming to whisper, “All is well!”
A moment only he feels the spell
Of the place and the hour, and the secret dread
Of the lonely belfry and the dead;
For suddenly all his thoughts are bent
On a shadowy something far away,
Where the river widens to meet the bay,–
A line of black that bends and floats
On the rising tide like a bridge of boats. Meanwhile, impatient to mount and ride,
Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride
On the opposite shore walked Paul Revere.
Now he patted his horse’s side,
Now he gazed at the landscape far and near,
Then, impetuous, stamped the earth,
And turned and tightened his saddle girth;
But mostly he watched with eager search
The belfry tower of the Old North Church,
As it rose above the graves on the hill,
Lonely and spectral and sombre and still.
And lo! as he looks, on the belfry’s height
A glimmer, and then a gleam of light!
He springs to the saddle, the bridle he turns,
But lingers and gazes, till full on his sight
A second lamp in the belfry burns.A hurry of hoofs in a village street,
A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,
And beneath, from the pebbles, in passing, a spark
Struck out by a steed flying fearless and fleet;
That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,
The fate of a nation was riding that night;
And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,
Kindled the land into flame with its heat.
He has left the village and mounted the steep,
And beneath him, tranquil and broad and deep,
Is the Mystic, meeting the ocean tides;
And under the alders that skirt its edge,
Now soft on the sand, now loud on the ledge,
Is heard the tramp of his steed as he rides. It was twelve by the village clock
When he crossed the bridge into Medford town.
He heard the crowing of the cock,
And the barking of the farmer’s dog,
And felt the damp of the river fog,
That rises after the sun goes down. It was one by the village clock,
When he galloped into Lexington.
He saw the gilded weathercock
Swim in the moonlight as he passed,
And the meeting-house windows, black and bare,
Gaze at him with a spectral glare,
As if they already stood aghast
At the bloody work they would look upon. It was two by the village clock,
When he came to the bridge in Concord town.
He heard the bleating of the flock,
And the twitter of birds among the trees,
And felt the breath of the morning breeze
Blowing over the meadow brown.
And one was safe and asleep in his bed
Who at the bridge would be first to fall,
Who that day would be lying dead,
Pierced by a British musket ball. You know the rest. In the books you have read
How the British Regulars fired and fled,—
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farmyard wall,
Chasing the redcoats down the lane,
Then crossing the fields to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road,
And only pausing to fire and load. So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm,—
A cry of defiance, and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo for evermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere”.
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Founding Mother
Fatherless at age three and orphaned at twelve, Mary Ball learned a sense of independence, at an early age. She was wed at age 22 in a “semi-arranged” marriage by her guardian, George Eskridge. Mary’s first and only husband was Augustine “Gus” Washington, father to six children, borne of the union. Gus died when the eldest was only eleven and Mary thirty-five, leaving Mary to raise Eskridge’ namesake and four surviving siblings, alone. Today, little is written about Martha Ball Washington, a woman whose personal strength of character taught her son to lead, by example. Eleven-year-old George would grow to become a General in the cause of Liberty and first President of the United States, a man who himself died childless whom we remember today as “Father of the Country”, George Washington

March 31, 2005 Arlington Ladies

The job of the Arlington Ladies is to honor, not to grieve, but it doesn’t always work out that way.  Linda Willey of the Air Force Ladies describes the difficulty of burying Pentagon friends after 9/11, while pieces of debris yet littered the cemetery.

The first military burial at Arlington National Cemetery was that of Private William Henry Christman, 67th Pennsylvania Infantry, interred on May 13, 1864. Two more joined Christman that day, the trickle soon turning into a flood. By the end of the war between the states, that number was 17,000 and rising.

In modern times, an average week will see 80 to 100 burials in the 612 acres of Arlington.

1200px-SMA_Dunway_Burial_at_Arlington_National_Cemetery_2008In 2005, a news release from the Department of Defense reported “Private First Class Michael A. Arciola, 20, of Elmsford, New York, died February 15, 2005, in Al Ramadi, Iraq, from injuries sustained from enemy small arms fire. Arciola was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 503d Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, Camp Casey, Korea”.

Private Arciola joined a quarter-million buried in our nation’s most hallowed ground on March 31. Two hundred or more mourners attended his funeral, a tribute befitting the tragedy of the loss of one so young.

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Sixteen others were buried in Arlington that Friday, most considerably older. Some brought only a dozen or so mourners. Others had no friends or family members whatsoever on-hand, to say goodbye.

Save for a volunteer, from the Arlington Ladies.

In 1948, Air Force Chief of Staff General Hoyt Vandenberg and the general’s wife Gladys made a practice of attending military funeral services at Arlington National Cemetery.

nn_lho_arlington_ladies_180102_1920x1080.nbcnews-fp-1200-630Sometimes, a military chaplain was the only one present at these services. Both Vandenbergs felt that a member of the Air Force family should be present at these funerals.  Gladys began to invite other officer’s wives. Over time, a group of women from the Officer’s Wives Club were formed for the purpose.

In 1973, General Creighton Abrams’ wife Julia did the same for the Army forming a group calling themselves “Arlington Ladies”. Groups of Navy and Coast guard wives followed suit, in 1985 and 2006.

Traditionally, the Marine Corps Commandant sends an official representative of the Corps to all Marine funerals.  The Marine Corps Arlington Ladies were formed in 2016.

Arlington Ladies’ Chairman Margaret Mensch explained “We’ve been accused of being professional mourners, but that isn’t true. I fight that perception all the time. What we’re doing is paying homage to Soldiers who have given their lives for our country.”

arlington_lady_joayn_bahr_at_funeral_es_053011The casual visitor cannot help but being struck with the solemnity of such an occasion. Air Force Ladies’ Chairman Sue Ellen Lansell spoke of one service where the only other guest was “one elderly gentlemen who stood at the curb and would not come to the grave site. He was from the Soldier’s Home in Washington, D. C. One soldier walked up to invite him closer, but he said no, he was not family”.

The organization was traditionally formed of current or former military wives. Today their number includes daughters and even one “Arlington Gentleman”. 46 years ago they came alone, or in pairs. Today, 145 or so volunteers from four military branches are a recognized part of all funeral ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery, their motto: “No Soldier will ever be buried alone.”

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The volunteer arrives with a military escort from the Navy or the United States Army 3rd Infantry Regiment, the “Old Guard”. The horse-drawn caisson arrives from the old post chapel, carrying the flag draped casket. Joining the procession, she will quietly walk to the burial site, her arm inside that of her escort. A few words are spoken over the deceased, followed by the three-volley salute. Off in the distance, a solitary bugler sounds Taps.

The folded flag is presented to the grieving widow, or next of kin. Only then will she break her silence, stepping forward with a word of condolence and two cards: one from the service branch Chief of Staff and his wife and a second, from herself.

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Joyce Johnson buried her husband Lieutenant Colonel Dennis Johnson in 2001, a victim of the Islamist terrorist attack on the Pentagon. Johnson remembers the Arlington Ladies’ volunteer as “a touchingly, human presence in a sea of starched uniforms and salutes”. Three years later, Joyce Johnson paid it forward, and became one herself.

Any given funeral may be that of a young military service member killed in service to the nation, or a veteran of Korea or WWII, who spent his last days in the old soldier’s home. It could be a four-star General or a Private. It matters not a whit.

“We’re not professional mourners. We’re here because we’re representing the Air Force family and because, one day, our families are going to be sitting there in that chair”. – Sandra Griffin, Air Force volunteer, Arlington Ladies

Individual volunteers attend about five funerals a day, sometimes as many as eight. As with the Tomb of the Unknown sentinels who hold their vigil heedless of weather, funeral services pay no mind, to weather conditions. The funeral will proceed on the date and time scheduled irrespective of rain, snow or heat. Regardless of weather, an Arlington Lady Will be in attendance.

The job of the Arlington Ladies is to honor, not to grieve, but it doesn’t always work out that way.  Linda Willey of the Air Force Ladies describes the difficulty of burying Pentagon friends after 9/11, while pieces of debris yet littered the cemetery. Paula McKinley of the Navy Ladies still chokes up, over the hug of a ten-year old girl who had just lost both parents. Margaret Mensch speaks of the heartbreak of burying one of her own young escorts after he was killed in Afghanistan, in 2009.

Barbara Benson was herself a soldier, an Army flight nurse during WWII. She is the longest serving Arlington Lady. “I always try to add something personal”, Benson said, “especially for a much older woman. I always ask how long they were married. They like to tell you they were married 50 or 60 years…I don’t know how to say it really, I guess because I identify with Soldiers. That was my life for 31 years, so it just seems like the natural thing to do.”

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Elinore Riedel was chairman of the Air Force Ladies during the War in Vietnam, when none of the other military branches had women representatives. “Most of the funerals were for young men,” she said. “I saw little boys running little airplanes over their father’s coffins. It is a gripping thing, and it makes you realize the awful sacrifices people made. Not only those who died, but those left behind.”

Mrs. Reidel is a minister’s daughter, who grew up watching her father serve those in need. “It doesn’t matter whether you know a person or not”, she said, “whether you will ever see them again. It calls upon the best in all of us to respond to someone in deep despair. I call it grace…I honestly feel we all need more grace in our lives.”

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23-year veteran of the United States Air Force Sandra Griffin, now serves as an Arlington Lady.

I dedicate this “Today in History” to the man for whom I am namesake. The man who gave me the love for history you see, on these pages. United States Army Lieutenant Colonel (retired) Richard B. “Rick” Long, Sr., 2/25/37 – 3/31/18.

Rest In Peace, Dad. You left us too soon.

December 30, 1610 The Blood Countess

She’s the most prolific female serial killer of all time. The Guinness Book of World Records, says she is.

The “Blood Countess” Erzsébet (Elizabeth) Báthory is the most prolific female serial killer in history. The Guinness book of World Records says she is, bathing in the blood of as many as 650 virgins to keep her skin looking young.

Erzsébet (Elizabeth) Báthory

Servants were convicted of killing 80 while Erzsébet herself was neither tried nor convicted, due to her rank. She was walled up in prison and left to die, the most prolific female murderer, in history. A woman whose bestiality has elevated from mere mortal to semi-supernatural, vampiric ghoul.

So…was she?

According to one story a servant girl once noted a few hairs out of place on the countess’ head. The noblewoman struck the girl so hard that great gouts of blood sprayed across her ladyship’s face. Báthory noticed how the blood seemed to rejuvenate the skin. Thus began the murder of 650 maidens to bathe, in their blood.

Other versions describe the blood landing on the skin of her hand and still others a belief on the countess’ part that only the blood of noble women, would have such rejuvenating effects.

A problem arises, with the absence of contemporary accounts. The tale of the blood bath first came out over a hundred years, after her death. Secondly, we all know how quickly the stuff clots and congeals, once leaving the body. Aside from the repulsiveness of the act does such a goopy coagulated mess seem suitable, for a bath?

Elizabeth lived from August 7, 1560 to August 21, 1614, a member of the powerful Báthory clan of Transylvania, an area which now includes parts of Hungary, Romania and the Slovak Republic. Her uncle was the King of Poland, her nephew, a voivode (prince) of Transylvania.

The future Hungarian war hero Ferenc Nádasdy was betrothed to Báthory when he was fourteen and she, ten rears old. The couple wed when he was nineteen and she fifteen and, as the Báthory clan outranked the Nádasdy she kept her name and he added it, to his own.

Theirs was a time and place closer to the fall of Constantinople than World War 1 is, to our own. It was an age of ever aggressive expansion of the Ottoman Empire. A time and place not so greatly removed from that of Vlad (The Impaler) Țepeș, a man of such freakishly extreme cruelty as to spawn the legend, of Count Dracula.

The Ottoman-Hungarian wars were never ending at this time and Ferenc spent more time fighting abroad than at home. He soon earned the sobriquet “Black Knight”, likely for excessive cruelty extended, to Ottoman prisoners.

Back at home Elizabeth managed the family estates including no fewer than seventeen villages and living at the Nádasdy castles at Sárvár, Hungary and Čachtice in what is now, the Slovak Republic.

Due to Ferenc’s frequent absence the marriage would fail to produce a child, for the first ten years. In time there would be five, two daughters dying in infancy with two more daughters and a son, growing to adulthood.

According to some stories, Elizabeth would write to her husband asking for the gruesome details of the torture, inflicted on prisoners. She was seen for a time as a benevolent ruler but that began to change, in 1602.

The stories make for difficult reading, tales of servant girls smeared with honey and left to be devoured by insects. Tales of stark naked girls made to stand in pails of water until they froze to death and mutilations carried out with scissors, knives and hot pokers and even Elizabeth’s own, teeth.

The higher ranking members of the servants’ corps would fan out across those seventeen villages to recruit a never ending supply of young girls, to the castle. None of it bothered the authorities all that much as even treatments so gruesome as these were alright, so long as they were carried out among the lower classes.

In 1604 the Black Knight died while in battle allegedly, of some unknown disease. Despite the rumors Elizabeth’s henchmen fed an ever increasing stream of young girls to the castle, increasingly, girls of the lesser nobility.

Now if the murder of a peasant girl is alright, killing a member of a Family of Rank™, is not. Questions asked about disappearances were met with implausible yarns about murder-suicides and sudden illness always conveniently followed, by the rapid disposal of the corpse.

Count György Thurzó was the Lord Palatine of Hungary, the personal representative of the monarch and as such, responsible for investigation. On December 29, 1610 according to some stories he surprised the blood soaked countess in the very act of tormenting, one of her victims. The following day, December 30, she was arrested.

Whether there were 36 victims or 50 or 650 all depended, on whom you ask. Judicial proceedings decided on the number, eighty. Accused of being accomplices servants Dorothy Szentes, Helena Jo and John Ujvary were all sentenced to death for helping Báthory to lure and murder her victims. The women had their fingers pulled off with hot pincers before being burned alive. John was beheaded and then, burned.

Ever obsessed with rank, the authorities didn’t try Báthory herself but instead walled her up in a small space in the Castle Čachtice, with only openings, for food and water. There she lingered for another four years until the morning of August 14, 1614 when she was found dead, on the floor.

Today, Castle Čachtice is just a ruin

Was Elizabeth Báthory guilty of the crimes laid against her? There is too much consistency among too many stories, to absolve her of her misdeeds. Not entirely. There were too many tales telling the same story for the woman to be entirely innocent but two things can be true at the same time, right?

Báthory was at odds with some powerful people. Her support of her cousin Prince Gábor Báthory of Transylvania put her in conflict with the mighty Habsburg Empire who just happened to owe the woman, money. A LOT of money and, happily, Báthory’s exile made it all, go away. It is reasponsible to view with jaundiced eye any story, told under torture. Furthermore, 250 of the 289 eyewitness accounts used against her contained nothing more than hearsay with no real information, whatsoever. Many witnesses owed Count Thurzó personally and he had exclusive authority, over the proceedings. Lastly, the testament of the widow Báthory left her estates, to her children. The Báthory-Nádasdy offspring were banished from Hungary following her incarceration. Some would return in 1640 but by that time the family name had lost, its former nobility.

More than a tale of cops and robbers this one seems more like two scorpions in a jar and only one coming out, alive. A story about bad guys vs other bad guys not unlike certain current events, of today. Unless of course you’re one who believes that Jeffrey Epstein, really did kill himself.

November 4, 1781 Divas

Händel himself was no slouch when it came to being the Temperamental Artist. He was lucky even to be alive following a furious argument in 1704 when a button was all that stood in the way of the skewering blade of fellow composer, Johann Mattheson.

George III King of Great Britain and Ireland ascended to the throne in 1760 declaring that, “Born and educated in this country, I glory in the name of Britain”. It was his reassurance that, unlike his father and grandfather before him, George III would rule, as an English King.

Kings George I and II were in fact Hanoverian and as such, did not speak English. At least not, fluently. Queen Victoria, that most quintessentially British of monarchs was in fact of German ancestry and spoke German, as a first language. George I, Elector of Brunswick-Lüneburg ascended to the throne of Great Britain and Ireland in August 1714, the first of the British Kings, from the House of Hanover.

The German composer George Frideric Händel was well known by this time, in German and Italian opera. He became Kapellmeister to the German prince in 1710, “Master of the Chapel Choir”. Chorale works Händel composed around this time for Queen Anne and the young and wealthy “Apollo of the Arts” Richard Boyle made it almost natural, that Händel would settle in England.

George I enjoys the River Thames with George Frideric Händel, in 1717

In Italian opera, a prima donna is the leading female singer in the company, the “first lady” opposite the male lead or primo uomo. Usually (but not always) a soprano, prima donne could be demanding of their colleagues with grand and sometime insufferable personae both on- and off-stage. Opera enthusiasts would divide into opposing “clubs” supporting or opposing one singer, over the other. The 19th century rivalry between fans of Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi is an infamous example despite a personal friendship, between the two singers. When prima donne detest one another pandemonium, is sure to follow.

Händel’s work was popular in Georgian era society, so much so he was given free reign to hire his own performers. One such was Francesca Cuzzoni, a fiery soprano with the reputation as being among the greatest, of 18th century divas. Unkindly described by one opera historian as “doughy” and plain, a “short, squat” performer she nevertheless sang, with the voice of the angels. Widely regarded as one of the finest Sopranos in all Europe Händel hired Cuzzoni, in 1722.

Händel himself was no slouch when it came to being the Temperamental Artist. He was lucky even to be alive following a furious argument in 1704 when a button was all that stood in the way of the skewering blade of fellow composer, Johann Mattheson.

On rehearsal for her London debut, Cuzzoni became furious over one aria claiming the role was written, for someone else. She refused even to perform when Händel, a great bear of a man physically picked the woman off the ground by her waist, and threatened to throw her out a window.

Problem solved.

Francesca Cuzzoni, by James Caldwall

Francesca Cuzzoni went on to become a smashing success, for four years the undisputed Queen, of the London opera. In 1726, Händel sought to capitalize on this success and reached out to his Italian agents, for a second Star. So it was the mezo-soprano Faustina Bordoni was hired, for the following season.

Younger and considerably more attractive than the older Cuzzoni the pair had been rivals, back in Italy. Notwithstanding, Händel and other composers wrote a series of operas featuring a two-female lead taking great care to give the two, equal prominence.

You know where this is going, right?

Faustina Bordoni pastel, in 1724

Baroque opera loved nothing more than a love triangle and the two were often cast, as rivals for the affections of one man. The degree to which the two divas’ professional rivalry bled into their personal lives is a matter of some discussion but the behavior of their fans, is not.

The “clash” between the two soon became public knowledge. Opera-going aristocrats began to take up sides enthusiastically egged on, by the press. Society ladies would dress in the respective fashion of their particular heroine and hiss and catcall, at the appearance of the other.

Things got out of hand during a performance of Bononcini’s Astianatte. Fights broke out among the audience when Cuzzoni turned and unleashed a torrent of Italian invective, at her rival. The pair hurled insults at one another. You know the words. These two, knew ALL of them them. Verbal combat soon became physical the performance, be damned. The scene beggars the imagination. A wild west bar fight in stalls and stage alike as two divas tore at each other’s costumes, and pulled each other’s hair.

In the end, the two were physically dragged from the stage their performance, abandoned.

Theater management canceled Cuzzoni’s contract. King George would have none of that and threatened to withdraw their allowance, and that was the end of that. The two divas kept an uneasy truce for the following season, but something had to give.

In the end, Faustina Bordoni was offered a guinea more for the 1728 season. One schilling, one pence. Predictably, Francesca Cuzzoni threw a tantrum and immediately resigned, and returned to Italy.

Faustina Bordoni lived on to a happy and prosperous old age and died on November 4, 1781. No so Francesca Cuzzoni who faded into poverty and obscurity eking out a living it is said, making and selling, buttons.

Back in 1728, theater management dearly wished the whole sorry mess would just go away. No such luck. John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera was a smash hit that season, “the most popular play of the eighteenth century” satirizing Italian opera with its perpetually feuding heroines Polly Peachum, and Lucy Lockit.

Hat tip “Rival Queens” featuring Simone Kermes, and Vivica Genaux
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