February 15, 1946 ENIAC

We are surrounded today by computing horsepower, undreamed of by any but the science fiction buffs of earlier generations. The 8088-processor powered IBM personal computer released 40 short years ago had eight times more memory than “Apollo’s brain”, the guidance computer navigating Apollo 11 to the moon and back, ten years earlier.

In the age of sail, naval combat was “muzzle to muzzle”. Before 1800 most such actions took place at ranges between 60 and 150 feet (18 – 46 m).

USS Constitution in combat during the War of 1812

The Civil War Battle of Cherbourg in 1864 pitting the Mohican-class sloop-of-war USS Kearsarge against the Confederate commerce raider CSS Alabama, opened at 3,000 feet (910m).

Battle of Cherbourg, 1864

In 1884 the invention of the steam turbine produced speeds in naval vessels, never before dreamed of. By the turn of the 20th century, rifled guns of vastly larger size hurled explosive ammunition over the horizon. Enormously complex fire control solutions had to be calculated for range, movement of both vessels, elevation, the yaw of the firing ship, meteorological conditions, even the ambient temperature in powder magazines.

The projectile in flight is subject to forces such as gravity, drag, wind and air pressure and, at longer ranges, even latitude and rotation of the planet. Any given salvo may be accurately fired at a moving target only to fall harmlessly, several ship lengths behind. With the other guy shooting back, there isn’t always another chance to get it right.

Battle of Jutland, WW1

On land, artillery fire control solutions are nearly as complex and all of it, pertains only to a single gun. What is to be done then, about training all the guns on a warship, against a single target. What about a whole fleet?

Over time, increasingly accurate solutions were devised but, by World War 2, the race for fire control supremacy had outstripped the old ways. The penalty for failure was the difference, between life and death.

Extreme slow motion image, of air patterns around a bullet, in supersonic flight

We are surrounded today by computing horsepower, undreamed of by any but the science fiction buffs of earlier generations. The 8088-processor powered IBM personal computer released 40 short years ago had eight times more memory than “Apollo’s brain”, the guidance computer navigating Apollo 11 to the moon and back, ten years earlier.

The iPhone 5s has 1,300 times the computing power, of the Apollo moon lander.

A wonder for its time, IBM PC processors could address up to 64k at a time, within the computer’s (max) 1 mb memory. The 80286 based PC/AT released three years later sported a 20mb internal hard drive. Today, 128 bucks at Walmart will get you 4 Gigabytes of memory and a 160 gig, hard drive.

Back to artillery. The idea of a calculating machine was anything, but new. The abacus has been around for 3,000 years. The hand operated Antikythera analog computer dredged up from the ocean bottom in 1901, may go back as far as 205 BC. The 12th century “castle clock” invented by the Muslim polymath Ismail al-Jazari may be the world’s first programmable computer, capable of showing local time, lunar and solar orbits and even adjusting for length of day at certain times of the year.

Modern recreation of the ancient Antikythera mechanism

The US Army commissioned a study for a giant electronic “brain” to calculate firing tables back on May 31, 1943. Work began with Johns Hopkins physicist John Mauchly with chief engineer John Presper Eckert of the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Electrical Engineering.

It took a year for the team to design the machine and another 18 months to build it. The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) was officially powered up in November, 1945.

The one thing those ancient machines have in common, is they were all hardware. “Software”, as it was known to programmers of the 1940s, had instructions written directly into the machine, in binary code.

The war was over in December 1945 but the military still had work for ENIAC to do. The first real-world calculations were performed On December 10.

ENIAC was formally dedicated at the University of Pennsylvania on February 15, 1946. Risible though the machine may be by modern standards, ENIAC was a wonder of science and technology, for its time. The press dubbed the thing, a “Giant Brain”. A trajectory taking 20 hours to calculate by humans took 30 seconds. One ENIAC was the computational equal, of 2,400 humans.

What the press didn’t know, was behind the scenes. In the early days of the war, the Moore School of Engineering worked with the Ballistic Research Laboratory (BRL) where a team of 100 “human computers” were trained to hand-calculate firing tables for artillery shells. With so many men off to war and programming seen at that time as “clerical work” the BRL hired, mostly women.

These were the “Top Secret Rosies”, the female “computers”, of WW2. When the ENIAC project began six of them came over, as programmers.

Marlyn Wescoff [left] and Ruth Lichterman were two of the female programmers of ENIAC. H/T Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers

Projects involved design for the hydrogen bomb, weather predictions, cosmic-ray studies, thermal ignition, random-number studies and wind-tunnel design.

ENIAC began as a room-sized modular computer comprised of individual panels, to perform different functions. Numbers were sent back & forth on buses, called trays. At its height ENIAC had 18,000 vacuum tubes, 7,200 crystal diodes, 1,500 relays, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors and something like 5 million hand soldered joints occupying 1,800 square feet. The machine consumed 150 kilowatts of electricity. Rumor had it when ENIAC was switched on the lights in all Philadelphia, dimmed.

All things must come to an end. ENIAC, once a wonder of science and technology was already obsolete, by 1956. At its height, the machine weighed in at 25 tons and performed 5,000 calculations, per second. Weighing in at 4.55 ounces the iPhone 6, performs 25 Billion calculations per second.

Today the electronic descendants of ENIAC perform tasks of increasing, even mind boggling complexity. Mapping the human genome. Climate research. Exploration, for oil and gas.

Before long top-of-the line mainframe computers were performing at a rate not in the thousands of instructions per second but MIPS. Millions of instructions per second. The first supercomputer arrived in 1965 with so much horsepower as to require a whole new unit of measure: FLOPS “floating-point operations per second”.

The term wasn’t in use during ENIAC’s day but, if it was, that bad boy was chunkin’ along, at 500 FLOPS. Supercomputer performance metrics have since climbed the metric decadic system, bending vocabularies to new and hitherto unimagined heights. KiloFLOPS was eclipsed by megaFLOPS and gigaFLOPS and continued ever onward. The “tera” prefix (Trillion) gave way to the dizzying petaFLOP, or one one quadrillion: a thousand trillion floating point line operations, per second.

“The IBM Blue Gene/P supercomputer “Intrepid” at Argonne National Laboratory runs 164,000 processor cores using normal data center air conditioning, grouped in 40 racks/cabinets connected by a high-speed 3-D torus network”. H/T Wikipedia

In April 2020 the distributed computing network folding@home acheived computing performance of one exaFLOPS. Unless you’re in interplanetary space I can’t think of another use, for such a number. Unless we’re talking about the federal debt.

As of January 2021 no single machine has scaled such heights, but they’re working on it. One exaFLOPS. A quintillion floating point line operations, per second. The estimated speed at the neural level, of the human brain.

February 12, 1554 No Sadder Spot on Earth

The “Nine Day Queen” ​experienced the swiftest rise and fall of any Monarch, in the history of the English crown. She never wanted any of it, but it didn’t matter. The ambitions of others would cost the teenage Lady Jane, her head.

A popular story has Martin Luther nailing a challenge to Church authority to the Wittenberg Palace Church, in 1517. In all probability, it never happened that way. Luther had no intention of confronting the One Church at this time. This was an academic work, mailed to Archbishop Albrecht and offered for scholarly disputation.

Luther’s “95 theses” rocked the Christian world and may be counted among the most important documents in world history, alongside the Cylinder of the Persian King Cyrus, the Magna Carta and the Declaration of independence.

What seems to the modern mind as mere doctrinal differences, were life and death matters in the late middle and early modern ages.

The European “Wars of Religion” spawned by the Protestant Reformation raged across Europe for a hundred years. Other issues were involved as well – territorial ambitions, revolution, Great Power conflicts, but fault lines pulling at the Christian world, were never far from the surface. The Peasant’s War of 1524-’25 alone killed more Europeans than any conflict prior to the French Revolution, in 1789. The Thirty Years’ War of 1618-’48 laid waste to Germany and killed a third of its population, a death rate twice that of World War I.

The Protestant Reformation spread across Europe reaching its greatest geographic extent in the latter half of the 16th century. In England, the schism began with Pope Clement VII and King Henry VIII, of England. Desperate for a male heir, Henry sought divorce from Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn. The Pope refused an annulment. Before it was over King Henry VIII had established the church of England with himself, at its head.

Henry died in 1547 leaving his son by Jane Seymour, the nine year old Edward Tudor, King. Next in order of succession came Edward’s half-sister by Catherine of Aragon Mary Tudor, followed by his half-sister Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn.

Despite breaking with the church in Rome, Henry never permitted the renunciation of Catholic doctrine, or ceremony. Henry, the first English monarch raised as a Protestant, dispensed with clerical celibacy and the Mass, and required services to be conducted, in English.

Despite her title, Henry’s cousin Jane had little use for the goings on at the royal court. “Lady” Jane Grey would rather read a book. Pretty, smart and well educated, she was the daughter of Henry’s younger sister and as such, in line for the crown.

At nine Jane was sent to live with Henry’s widow, Katherine Parr.

There exists among us a type of person, with an insatiable need to control the lives of others. People who desire power, above all things. Call it a personality defect or a psychological condition, that’s up to you, but one thing is certain. History is replete with such individuals at all times and in all political stations. All too often, these are the people who Become, history.

Books have been written about the scheming, the grasping for power behind the scenes, of the royal throne. Such machinations are beyond the scope of this essay but this story is chock full of such individuals, not the least of whom were John Dudley, duke of Northumberland and Jane’s own father, Henry.

In 1551, Henry Grey was created 1st duke of Suffolk. With pre-teen Henry on the throne Dudley, duke of Northumberland, exercised enormous power behind the scenes. In May 1553, Suffolk and Dudley arrange of their two children: Lady Jane to Northumberland’s son, Lord Guildford Dudley.

Edward ruled until the ripe old age of fifteen and fell ill from some lung condition, possibly tuberculosis. Knowing he was dying, Edward and his council drew up a “Devise for the Succession” to prevent the return of Catholic rule.

Lady Jane was devoutly Protestant. Edward bypassed his half sisters Mary and Elizabeth to name Jane Grey, his rightful heir. At fifteen, this quiet teenage girl who’d rather read a book became the Great Hope of Protestant England.

King Edward VI died on July 6, 1553 his death kept quiet, for four days. Lady Jane Grey was proclaimed Queen of England, France and Ireland on July 10, her husband Guildford, the Duke of Clarence. Jane fainted on learning she was Queen. She later said she accepted the crown, only with reluctance.

Lady Jane being asked to take the throne as imagined by artist, Robert Smirke

To the devoutly Catholic Mary Tudor, the future “Bloody Mary”, the line of succession was clear. She herself was named in the Parliamentary act of 1544. She was next according to Henry’s private papers. Mary Tudor was not about to be denied what was rightfully hers.

It is said that success has many fathers but failure, is an orphan. Dudley set out with a body of troops, to capture the would be Queen as the privy council, personal advisors to the crown, now declared support for Mary. With the rug pulled out from under him Dudley’s support, evaporated. Even Henry Grey, Jane’s father, switched his support to Mary.

Queen for only nine days, Jane was deposed on July, 19, 1553. The only English monarch in 500 years without so much, as a portrait. Now simply “Jane Dudley, wife of Guildford”, she was imprisoned in the Gaoler’s (Jailer’s) apartments at the Tower of London, Guildford in the Beauchamp Tower.

Mary rode triumphantly into London on August 3, accompanied by her half sister Elizabeth and a procession of over 800 dignitaries.

Jane was charged with high treason as was Guildford and several associates. The trial began on November 3 with no doubt, as to how it would end. Just turned 17 in October the “nine days’ Queen” was convicted of high treason and sentenced to “be burned alive on Tower Hill or beheaded as the Queen pleases”.

Even yet, there was reason to believe that Jane might be spared. What happened next sealed the teenager’s fate.

Once crowned, Mary I wasn’t about to be succeeded by her younger (Protestant) half sister, Elizabeth. She turned her attention to finding a mate. Mary needed to produce an heir. The House of commons petitioned that the new Queen select an English mate, but she chose Prince Philip of Spain.

The marriage was controversial. English patriots opposed the match, not wanting Britain relegated to a mere dependency, of the Habsburgs. English Protestants feared Catholic rule.

Mary I, Queen of England

There followed a series of uprisings in opposition to the marriage, called after the rebel politician Thomas Wyatt. The so-called Wyatt’s Rebellion explicitly opposed the marriage but carried with it the implication, of an intent to overthrow the Queen. There were even dark rumors, of assassination.

Jane’s father joined in the rebellion as did two of his brothers. For the government, this was the last straw. The Bishop of Winchester persuaded the Queen that Jane was a risk and would continue to be so, due to her influence over Protestant rebels. Her execution and that of her husband were scheduled for February 9.

Three days were allowed for the former Queen to save her life, and convert to Catholicism. Mary even sent her chaplain John Feckenham to “save her soul”.

Jane politely declined to convert but she soon made friends, with Feckenham. She even invited him to her own execution.

On the morning of February 12, 1554, Jane watched out the window as her husband, was wheeled off in a cart. With the words “Oh Guildford” she watched the return of his body and his head, each wrapped in separate white sheets.

Then came the sound of footsteps. At her door.

Brought to the scaffold, Jane began to speak. “Good people, I am come hither to die” concluding, “I do wash my hands thereof in innocence“. The law made her a traitor but all she had done, was accept the positi0n.

She recited Psalm 51 (Have mercy upon me, O God) in English and handed her gloves and handkerchief to her maid. As was customary the executioner asked for forgiveness. That she gave, adding “I pray you dispatch me quickly.” She then asked “Will you take it off before I lay me down?” She was referring to her head. “No Madame”, came the reply. Lady Jane applied her own mask and reached out groping, for the block. In that she received help. Outstretching her arms, she spoke. Jesus’ last words, as recounted by Luke: “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”

The slender neck was parted, with a stroke.

There was no funeral. No stone to mark the grave. Lady Jane was simply buried, along with her husband in the parish church of the Tower of London. Saint Peter ad Vincula. (“St. Peter in chains”). She is the last of five beheaded females buried in the chancel area, along with Queen Anne Boleyn, Queen Katherine Howard, Lady Rochford and Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury.

Three hundred years later the essayist Thomas Babington wrote in memoriam, of those who rest, at St. Peter ad Vincula:

“In truth there is no sadder spot on the earth than that little cemetery. Death is there associated, not, as in Westminster Abbey and Saint Paul’s, with genius and virtue…but with whatever is darkest in human nature and in human destiny, with the savage triumph of implacable enemies, with the inconstancy, the ingratitude, the cowardice of friends, with all the miseries of fallen greatness and of blighted fame…”.

Church graveyard at St. Peter ad Vincula

February 8, 1587 Mary, Queen of Scots

To her detractors, Mary Queen of Scots was an adulteress if not a murderess. To her supporters she was a romantic figure not given to evil but the tragic victim, of evil times.

In 1509, the daughter of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon (yeah, That Ferdinand and Isabella), married the newly ascended King of England, Henry VIII. Six times over the next nine years, Catherine of Aragon became pregnant. Three boys, three girls.

Only one lived through the second month, Mary Tudor, destined to become Mary I, Queen of England and hated by her Protestant opponents as “Bloody Mary”.

With no surviving male heir, Henry began an affair with the daughter of the 1st Earl of Wiltshire, Mary Boleyn. Mary bore two children around this time but Henry acknowledged paternity, of neither. Instead, the King became obsessed with Mary’s sister, Anne.

Henry wanted this woman but he was caught in a pickle, between a Pope who refused to grant an annulment and a love interest who refused to become a mistress, as her sister had done. Anne Boleyn was going to be the King’s wife, or nothing.

Thus began a series of events which would culminate in schism with the Catholic church with Henry ascending to the head, of the Church of England. This was no small thing. What seems to the modern mind as mere doctrinal differences, were life and death matters in the late middle and early modern ages. The Peasant’s War of 1524-’25 alone killed more Europeans than any conflict in history, prior to the French Revolution.

While court and public alike adored Catherine, Anne was reviled. “The King’s concubine”. The woman who had bewitched a Monarch and usurped a beloved Queen consort was held personally responsible, for Henry’s break with the Church. The union produced one surviving child, Elizabeth Tudor, derided by many as the “bastard child of a whore.”

Whip smart even at the age of three, Elizabeth noticed her own change of station following the death of her mother. Anne was executed by decapitation in 1536 and replaced by Jane Seymour, 11 days later. “How haps it Governor,” she asked a year later, “yesterday my Lady Princess, and today but my Lady Elizabeth?”

Seymour gave birth to the long awaited male heir who took the throne at age 9, following the death of his father. He was Edward VI, the first English monarch brought up, as a Protestant. Jane herself died shortly after giving birth.

Wife #4, a German princess called Anne of Cleaves, was displeasing to the King. The pair was divorced, in 6 months.

Elizabeth, now nine, was given the best of education while her father remained cold. Distant. The girl would occasionally appear in court and impressed all with her intelligence but it was her teenage stepmother, Catherine Howard, with whom Elizabeth developed any kind of relationship. That all changed when the headsman’s axe came down yet again on February 13, 1542. Catherine Howard, the 5th wife of King Henry VIII, was dead. Then and there the future Queen is said to have vowed, not to marry.

That same year a ginger-haired princess was born in Scotland, Mary Stuart, the only surviving child of King James V of Scotland and his imposing second wife the French noblewoman, Mary of Guise.

The childhood of those two girls, cousins who would never meet, could not have been more different. Mary became Queen of Scots as an infant, following the death of her father. Her mother ruled as Regent for the rest of her life, trying in vain to keep the Protestant reformation, out of Scotland.

The brilliant Elizabeth must have feared at times, for her own survival. With her future anything but certain, her very legitimacy an open question, Elizabeth learned to hold her cards close and to hold others, in suspicion.

Even with her title of “Princess” restored Elizabeth was still mostly alone, outside of court life with her books, her thoughts and the occasional visitor. Mary’s life “…from the age of six was lived at the very center of the most glamorous court in Christendom”, surrounded by pets, tutors, and adoring cousins and occupied by singing lessons, dancing and horseback riding.

Biographer Jane Dunn writes in Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rival, Queens: “Mary’s sense of herself as queen had been with her from the dawning of her consciousness. It was never disputed or tested, as was Elizabeth’s. This awareness of her pre-eminence was her companion through life, something taken for granted, the responsibilities to which she did not apply much profound thought nor, in the end, much value.

Henry died in 1547 leaving Katherine Parr a widow, and the “Child King” Edward VI King of England, at the age of nine.

Henry’s long-awaited heir died at the age of fifteen to be replaced by his half sister, Mary Tudor.

Best remembered for her attempts to reassert Catholicism in England, “Bloody Mary” ruled for not-quite three years, her “Marian persecutions” responsible for hundreds of Protestant martyrs and “heretics” being burned, at the stake.

At first moved about to avoid the danger of warring clans, Mary was sent to her mother’s native France at age 5 where she was worshipped by the royal family. “The little Queen of Scots is the most perfect child that I have ever seen” gushed the French King Henry II.

As a child Queen, Mary literally walked before the King’s on children.

Royal marriages were often arranged at this time, to cement political alliances. Mary, age 5, was betrothed to Henry’s son and heir Francis, the Dauphin of France. The two could not have been more different: She, pretty and vivacious, dedicated to her studies and exceptionally tall as an adult reaching 5’11”. He was short and sickly, prone to stutter and more interested in falconry, than studying.

The couple was wed, in 1559. Francis II became the teenage King of France and after his father was killed in a joust, but the marriage didn’t last long. An ear infection turned into a brain abscess the following year.

Mary Tudor detested her half sister and, in 1554, threw her in the Tower of London where her mother Anne Boleyn, had died. “Oh Lorde!” she said. “I never thought to have come in here as prisoner!” There followed a year in exile and then a Royal Pardon. Mary I, suffering from abdominal pain which may have been uterine cancer, recognized Elizabeth on November 6, 1555. Mary Tudor, the first Queen to rule over Britain in her own right, died on November 17. Elizabeth I became Queen the same day.

Historian’s debate the new Elizabeth’s religious convictions but doubts about her own legitimacy left little doubt, she would rule as a Protestant. One day, Protestant England would go to war with itself over issues of Religious expression but, for now, Protestant England agreed. Current arrangements were better than “Popery”.

To English Catholics, the Scottish queen was the rightful heir to English throne. The 3rd succession act of 1543 said otherwise and Henry VIII’s own last will & testament precluded a Stuart from becoming sovereign, but still. Mary was the senior surviving legitimate descendant of Henry VII through her grandmother, Margaret Tudor and therefore, according to English Catholics, the rightful Queen of England.

Mary returned to Scotland in 1561. Having grown up in France she was ill prepared for the political situation in Scotland, or the Protestant reformation her mother had failed to hold off, as regent.

There followed a series of bad decisions, on Mary’s part. First her own political isolation resulting from the appointment of mostly Protestant ministers. Perhaps she had an eye toward the English throne. Next came a catastrophic error in judgement in the six-foot + form of her English-born half-cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Mary fell hard for the man.

The marriage hardened differences in internal Scottish politics and infuriated Elizabeth. How could she marry an English subject without Her permission? Darnley became arrogant, demanding. King consort wasn’t good enough. He wanted the Crown Matrimonial, the full right of co-rule. Mary became pregnant at this time, a fact Darnley blamed on Mary’s Italian secretary, David Rizzio.

Months later, Mary would present her newborn baby boy, the future King of Scotland, to her husband. “My Lord, here I protest to God”, she said, “and as I shall answer to Him at the great day of judgment, this is your son, and no other man’s son…

It didn’t matter. Darnley and a group of Protestant Lords stabbed Rizzio to death in front of Mary, that March. Darnley himself was murdered in 1567 and Mary married James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, believed by many to be responsible for her husband’s murder.

Pushback was immediate, and vehement. 26 Scottish peers known as the confederate lords raised an army. Mary and Bothwell raised their own and met the lords at Carberry Hill, that June. No fighting took place but Mary’s forces dwindled through desertion, as negotiations dragged on. Bothwell himself was granted safe passage from the field while Mary was imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle, denounced as an adulteress, and murderer.

Mary escaped and this time there Was a battle. Her side lost and the Queen, now deposed, fled south to England. Mary seems to have thought Elizabeth would help regain her crown but instead, she ordered an inquiry.

Unsigned letters purported to be written by Mary were “found” in a small silver casket, seeming to establish Mary’s guilt. Three biographers later declared these “casket letters” to be outright forgeries but, no matter. The majority of commissioners accepted the letters, as valid.

Biographer Antonia Fraser describes the proceeding as one of the strangest “trials” in legal history. In the end there was no finding of guilt or innocence of either side. Perhaps that’s what Elizabeth wanted, all along. Moray was allowed to return home to Scotland. Mary remained in custody. For nineteen years.

Hers was a gilded cage to be sure with with servants, bedlinens changed daily and chefs to prepare her meals but a cage it was.

Lack of exercise and close confinement led to a host of medical problems including porphyria, and rheumatism so severe as to render her lame.

Elizabeth attempted at one point to mediate her cousin’s return to the throne but an uprising of Catholic earls convinced the Queen that Mary was where she belonged.

In 1586 there was a plot to assassinate Elizabeth and place Mary, on the English throne. Mary, betrayed by her own son in favor of Elizabeth, appears to have corresponded with the plotters. The names of so-called “Babington plot” co-conspirators were extracted by torture, participants convicted of treason, hanged, drawn and quartered. Mary herself was tried without benefit of legal counsel, evidence or witnesses, on her behalf. The Queen of Scotland was convicted of treason. Her cousin Elizabeth signed the death warrant.

100 years later, executioner James Ketch would so butcher the execution of Lord Russell (pun unintended), the axeman wrote a public letter of apology. James Scott, on ascending the scaffold for his own execution “bid the fellow to do his office better than to the late Lord Russell, and gave him gold; but the wretch made five chops before he had his head off; which so incensed the people, that had he not been guarded and got away, they would have torn him to pieces“.

You’d have to be some kind of screwup, to so incense a crowd come to gawk at a 17th century execution. On this day in 1587 Mary’s killer, wasn’t much better.

The slender neck was placed on the chopping block as Mary prayed. Seven words, over and over. “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum” (Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit)…A man who comes down to us only by the name of “Bull”, hacked down with the axe.

He missed, the blade glancing off the back of her skull as Mary, continued to pray. In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum. A second swing came down and hit the mark, sort of, but the headsman’s axe yet had work to do. Now as a meat cleaver, to separate thee last bits of flesh and sinew. As Bull lifted the severed head with the words “God save the Queen”, the auburn locks by which he grasped it turned out to be a wig. The head tumbled to the floor revealing close cropped gray hair and rolled off the stage, “like a football”.

To make matters worse, Mary’s small dog, a terrier who had sneaked onto the scaffold and hidden in her petticoats now came forth, running about and wailing pitifully until lying down in the spreading pool of blood, where her head used to be.

In the end, there there is no proof of Mary’s complicity in Darnley’s murder nor of any conspiracy, involving Bothwell. Such accusations rest on nothing more than assumptions. To her detractors, Mary Queen of Scots was an adulteress if not a murderess. To her supporters she was a romantic figure not given to evil but the tragic victim, of evil times. To her rival, the cousin she would never meet, the Queen who signed her death warrant she was simply, “The daughter of debate”.

February 4, 1936 A Damnable Travesty of Justice

“This is a heartless proceeding. It is unmanly, unjust and cruel. This is a case which calls not for fine-spun litigation but for simple, quick, direct justice.” Walter Lippmann – New York World

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

Marie and Pierre Curie discovered the 88th element of the Periodic Table on December 21, 1898. This new and radioactive element was Radium, one of the ‘alkaline earth metals’. Marie curie would go on to become the first female recipient of a Nobel Prize in 1906, and the only person of either sex to ever win two Nobels.

undark_ad_large

From goldfish swallowing to pole sitting there have been some strange fads over the years, but none so strange as the radium craze, of 1904. Newspapers waxed rhapsodic about cities of the future, streets aglow in the light of radium lamps as smiling diners enjoyed luminescent cocktails, in restaurants.

While serious doctors had early successes killing cancer cells, quacks and charlatans sold radium creams, drinks and suppositories to cure everything from acne to warts.

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

At the outset of World War 1, it didn’t take long to recognize the advantages of glow in the dark instruments. A number of companies stepped up to fill the need, perhaps none larger than US Radium and their glow-in-the-dark paint, “Undark”.

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

gracefryer
Grace Fryer

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

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

radium-girls

In 1925, doctors began to suspect that Grace Fryer’s condition may be related to her previous employment in US Radium’s Orange, New Jersey factory. By that time she was seriously ill, yet Columbia University “Specialist” Frederick Flynn and a “Colleague” pronounced her to be in “fine health”. It was only later that the two were revealed to be company executives.

These US Radium guys must have been genuine, mustache twirling, villains. In the early 20s, company officials hired physiologist and Harvard Professor Cecil Drinker to report on working conditions. Drinker’s report detailed catastrophically dangerous working conditions, with virtually every factory employee suffering blood or bone conditions.

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

Reports of illness among other women came flooding in. In a tactic that may sound familiar today, US Radium took to assassinating the character of these women, claiming such symptoms resulted from syphilis.

phossyjaw

Attorney Raymond Berry filed suit on Fryer’s behalf in 1927, the lawsuit joined by four other dial painters seeking $250,000 apiece in damages. Soon, the newspapers were calling them “radium girls”. The health of all five plaintiffs was deteriorating rapidly, while one stratagem after another was used to delay proceedings. By their first courtroom appearance in January 1928, none could raise her arm to take the oath. Grace Fryer was altogether toothless by this time, unable to walk and requiring a back brace even to sit up.

Another dial painter, Amelia Maggia, had had to have her jaw removed in the last months of her life. Maggia’s cause of death was ruled as syphilis, but her dentist wasn’t buying it. Dr. Joseph Knef placed the jaw on a piece of dental film. The image resulting showed “absurd” levels of radiation.

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

waterbury-mother

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

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

Marie Curie herself was dead by 1934, poisoned by radiation. With a half-life of 1,600 years, her lab notebooks remain “too hot to handle”, to this day.

Radium was synthesized for the first time two years later, on February 4, 1936. Presumably, factory workers were no longer encouraged to sharpen their brushes using lips and tongues.

January 30, 1889 If Only

“What if” counterfactuals can be slippery. We can’t know how a story will end only by starting it out… “if only”. But still…

“What if” counterfactuals can be slippery. We can’t know how a story will end only by starting it out… “if only”. But still. How might the 20th century have played out, for example, had it not been for that day in Sarajevo, in 1914.

Perhaps the tinderbox already building by 1914 would have been lit, on some other day. But what if? Maybe two World Wars never happened, after all. Adolf Hitler remained a mediocre artist living in a flop house, in Vienna. All China became a free market, and not just Taiwan. What if the cold war, communism and everything that stemmed from that malevolent ideology was nothing more than the unpublished, nightmare imaginings of some crazy novelist?

In the wake of World War 2, a bipolar structure emerged in the world political order and remained so, for 40 years.

America was a minor player in pre-WW1 affairs, a period about which Germany’s “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck once explained: “All politics reduces itself to this formula: try to be one of three, as long as the world is governed by the unstable equilibrium of five great powers.”

After the downfall of French Emperor Napoleon I, 1814-’15, the Great Powers of Austria, Britain, France, Russia and Prussia met in Vienna to settle old issues and rebalance national boundaries in order to bring long-term peace, to Europe.

Austria declined over the next half-century leading to the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, an accord between the Empire of Austria and the Kingdom of Hungary. Ostensibly a constitutional union, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a kaleidoscope of fifteen distinct ethnic groups speaking at least as many languages and divided, along no fewer than six religious lines.

After the 1889 suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf, the only son of Franz Josef, the emperor’s younger brother Karl Ludwig became heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Ludwig’s death in 1896 left his eldest son, Franz Ferdinand, the new heir presumptive.

Otto von Bismarck once said the next European war would begin with “some damn fool thing in the Balkans”. Bismarck got his damn fool thing in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. We all know the story. The diplomatic visit of an heir presumptive. The open car. The wrong turn. The assassin.

There followed a series of diplomatic missteps, military mobilizations and counter-mobilizations called the “July Crisis of 1914″. By August there was no turning back. The “War to End all Wars” would shatter a generation, lay waste to a continent and erect the foundation, for the rest of the 20th century.

So, what about Rudolf and that “suicide”, in 1889. He was supposed to succeed Ludwig, not Ferdinand. What if the Emperor’s only son, had lived?

Political alliances came and went among the dynastic families of Europe, with treaties often sealed by arranged marriages.  On May 10, 1881, Crown Prince Rudolf married Princess Stéphanie, daughter of King Leopold, of Belgium.

Crown Prince Rudolf and his wife, Princess Stéphanie of Belgium, daughter of King Leopold II

A child was born in 1883, Archduchess Elisabeth, but the union soon soured. Rudolf began to drink and pursue women, not his wife. He wanted to write to Pope Leo XIII to annul the marriage. The formidable Franz Josef, would have none of that.

Three years later, Rudolf bought a hunting lodge in the Austrian village of Mayerling. In 1888, the 30-year old crown Prince met and began an affair with 17-year-old Marie Freiin (Baroness) von Vetsera.

Marie Freiin von Vetsera preferred to go by the more fashionable Anglophile version of her name, Mary

On January 30, 1889, the bodies of the Crown Prince and the Baroness were discovered in the Mayerling hunting lodge, victims of an apparent suicide pact.

Mayerling

Emperor Franz Josef went on to reign until 1916, one of the longest-serving monarchs of the 19th century.

Now without male heir, succession to the imperial throne passed first to the emperor’s younger brother Ludwig and later to Franz Ferdinand, best remembered for his assassination, in 1914.

Empress Elizabeth of Bavaria, Rudolf’s mother, went into deep mourning.

She wore the colors of her grief, pearl gray and black, every day until her assassination at the hands of 25-year-old Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni, in 1898.

132 years later we can only ponder. It may be the ultimate counterfactual. What if Crown Prince Rudolf had lived to succeed Franz Josef. Politically, the son was far more liberal, than his father. Rudolf would surely have held more conciliatory views toward the forces, tearing at the empire. The same could be said of Franz Ferdinand, so who knows. Perhaps a rock in a stream once moved, alters not the flow of events yet to come.

But maybe that fork in the road met on June 28, 1914, would have led to a road less traveled and perhaps, the history of the last century, never happened.

Afterward,

By special dispensation, the Vatican declared Rudolf to be in a state of “mental imbalance” as suicide would have precluded church burial. The Emperor ordered Mayerling transformed into a penitential convent and endowed a chantry ensuring that prayers would rise up daily, for the eternal rest of his only son.

Vetsera’s body was smuggled out in the dark of night and quietly buried in the village cemetery at Heiligenkreuz, her funeral so secret even her mother was forbidden to attend.

Stories of poison gave way to reports of murder-suicide. Rumors have surrounded the Mayerling incident, for 100 years. Such stories went unchallenged until 1946 when occupying Red Army troops dislodged the stone covering the crypt and opened Vetsera’s coffin, looking for jewels. Repairing the damage some nine years later the fathers of the monastery observed the small skull and noticed, the absence of bullet holes. Physician Gerd Holler examined the remains in 1959 and concurred. No bullet hole.

But Maria von Vetsera was shot by the Crown Prince who later took his own life. That was the story, right?

Stories came to life of defensive wounds. Of evidence the pair had been murdered, after all.

Obsessed with the tale, Linz furniture store owner Helmut Flatzelsteiner disturbed the remains yet again, in 1991. Rumors went wild but in the end, results were inconclusive. Flatzelsteiner paid the abbey €2,000, in restitution.

In 2015 a letter was found in a safe deposit box, in an Austrian bank. A suicide note from a young girl, to her mother

“Dear Mother
Please forgive me for what I’ve done
I could not resist love
In accordance with Him, I want to be buried next to Him in the Cemetery of Alland
I am happier in death than life”.

January 25, 1890 Nellie Bly

“Could I pass a week in the insane ward at Blackwell’s Island? I said I could and I would. And I did”. – Nellie Bly

Born May 5, 1864, Elizabeth Jane Cochran was one of fifteen children born to Michael Cochran, and two wives. Michael died in 1870 leaving a modest legacy. It didn’t amount to much, split fifteen ways.

As a teenager in western Pennsylvania, Elizabeth adopted an “e” believing that “Cochrane” sounded more sophisticated. She enrolled at the Indiana Normal School in 1879 (now Indiana University of Pennsylvania) but dropped out after one semester, for lack of funds. In 1880 her mother moved the family, to Pittsburgh.

According to an article in the Pittsburg Dispatch entitled “What girls are for” the answer appears to be, not very much. Making babies and keeping house. Elizabeth didn’t appreciate that and wrote to the paper, to say so. She signed her letter, “Lonely Orphan Girl”.

If writing well is the sign of an organized thought process, the mind of Elizabeth Cochrane was in good working order. Impressed with the anonymous letter, Editor George Madden ran an advertisement asking that the writer, identify herself.

That she did. Madden offered the opportunity to write a piece for publication, under the same pseudonym. Cochrane called that first piece “The Girl Puzzle”, describing how divorce effected women and arguing for reform of marital laws.

Madden was even more impressed and hired Elizabeth, full-time. In those days, women who wrote for newspapers generally did so, under a pseudonym. The Editor suggested “Nelly Bly” after the subject of a popular minstrel song, from 1850. Cochrane liked “Nelly” but her editor spelled it with an ‘ie’.

Nellie Bly would go on to be one of the most famous journalists of the age.

She first came to widespread notice with a series of investigative articles, focused on poor working conditions and the plight of female factory workers. Factory owners complained. Bly was reassigned to a role more typical of female reporters: Gardening. Society. Fashion.

She didn’t want any of it. Still only 21, she wanted “to do something no girl has done before.” She traveled to Mexico and became a foreign correspondent, writing about the Mexican people and criticizing the dictatorship, of President Porfirio Diaz.

Nellie Bly, in Mexico

Stung by what she had written, Mexican authorities threatened to throw her in jail. Bly was forced to flee. Back in Pittsburg, it wasn’t long before she’d had enough of theater and arts reporting. She resigned her job in 1887 and moved to New York.

This was the age of lurid headlines, of sensational if not always accurate stories and homeless street waifs called “Newsies“, hawking newspapers: “Extra Extra, read all about it!” Within the next five years, San Francisco publisher William Randolph Hearst would buy crosstown rival New York Journal sparking a newspaper war and a new style of news we now call “Yellow Journalism“.

Penniless after four months without income, Cochrane walked into the office of New York World publisher, Joseph Pulitzer. Pulitzer had purchased the company four years earlier promising to root out corruption, expose fraud and ferret out public abuse, at all levels.

Bly was hired to cover theater and the arts but the pair soon concocted an undercover assignment. Nellie Bly would feign insanity, with the aim of being committed to the notorious women’s insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island.

It was a dangerous ruse but it worked. The “pretty crazy girl” fooled the New York press and mental health “experts” alike, culminating in Bly’s incarceration at Blackwell’s Island. She was released at the behest of the New York World, ten days later.

Bly’s exposé was a sensation. First in a series of stories and then in a book entitled Ten Days in a Madhouse, Nellie Bly told tales of torture, of ice cold baths in used and filthy water, rancid food and the rats, vermin and brutality suffered by women she was convinced were every bit as sane, as herself.

Public outrage prompted a grand jury investigation culminating in an $800,000 increase in public funding to the Department of Public Charities and Corrections.

Bly’s caper sparked a new form of “stunt journalism”, a new breed of female reporters with secret identities like “Florence Noble” and “Dorothy Dare” tackling subjects like disaster victims, the plight of factory workers and other subjects previously considered “unfit for ladies”.

Every major newspaper in the nation wanted a “stunt girl” on the staff.

In 1872, novelist Jules Verne published the fictional tale of the gambler Phileas Fogg and the trip he went on, to win a bet. The story was called Around the World in 80 Days. In 1888, Nellie Bly pitched the same trip to her editor. For real.

With two days’ notice, Nellie Bly boarded the Hamburg America Line steamer Augusta Victoria in November 1889 to begin her 25,000-mile adventure. She took an overcoat, the dress she was wearing, a few changes of underwear and a travel bag with a few essentials. A bag with £200 in English bank notes, some gold and American currency hung around her neck.

Unknown to Nellie at this time, Cosmopolitan magazine was sponsoring reporter Elizabeth Bisland to take the same trip, in the opposite direction.

She departed the same day.

New underwater cables enabled Bly to send short progress reports though longer dispatches had to travel by mail. From her first stop in England she traveled to France where she met Jules Verne himself and on to Brindisi, the Suez Canal, Ceylon and the Far East. She visited a leper colony in China. In Singapore, she bought a monkey.

The New York World sponsored a “Nellie Bly Guessing Match”. Who could predict to the second, the journalist’s return. The grand prize was an all-expense paid trip to Europe. Spending money was tossed in, later on. A rough Pacific passage on board the Steamer RMS Oceanic put the trip two days behind schedule but Pulitzer’s newspaper made that up, hiring a private train from San Francisco.

RMS Oceanic

Nellie Bly arrived in New York on January 25, 1890 at 3:51pm, besting Phileas Fogg’s time, by eight days. Over at Cosmo, Bisland was still crossing the Atlantic, with 4½ days to go.

At 31, Nellie Bly married 73-year old metal container manufacturer Robert Seaman in 1895, and left journalism. Seaman died in 1904 and, for a time, Elizabeth was one of the leading female industrialists, in the country.

She ran the company as “a model of social welfare, replete with health benefits and recreational facilities“, according to biographer, Brooke Kroeger.

But Bly was hopeless at understanding the financial aspects of her business and ultimately lost everything. Unscrupulous employees bilked the firm of hundreds of thousands of dollars, troubles compounded by a protracted and costly bankruptcy litigation“.

Back in journalism, Bly traveled to Europe to cover the Great War. She was the first woman and one of few foreigners to visit the war zone between Austria, and Serbia.

In 1913, Nelly Bly covered the first suffragist parade in Washington. She predicted women would have the vote, by 1920.

The 19th Amendment giving (white) women the vote was certified on August 26, 1920, by US Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby.

In practice, voting restrictions against non-white men now extended to non-white women. The crusade to protect the voting rights of ALL American citizens would last, another 40 years.

December 27, 1897 Yes Virginia, there IS a Santa Claus

History fails to record the conversation nor the exact time, or place. Perhaps the little girl went for a walk with her father, on the streets of Manhattan’s upper west side. Maybe it was over dinner or perhaps tucked into bed after a goodnight story and a kiss on the forehead. Papa, is there a Santa Claus? My little friends say he isn’t real.

In the summer of 1897, the 25th President of the United States William McKinley, had barely moved into the White House. The nation’s first subway opened in the city of Boston while, in Seattle, the Klondike gold rush was just getting underway. Thomas Edison was granted a patent for an early projector called a Kinetoscope. Mark Twain penned a rebuttal as only Mark Twain could, to his own obituary in the pages of the New York Journal: “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

(Left: Laura Virginia O’Hanlon. around 1895)

One day there came the Dread Question asked by eight-year-olds the world over and answered by fathers since the dawn of time: “Go ask your mother”.

Just kidding. This was the Other dread question. The Santa Claus question.

History fails to record the conversation nor the exact time, or place. Perhaps the little girl went for a walk with her father, on the streets of Manhattan’s upper west side. Maybe it was over dinner or perhaps tucked into bed after a goodnight story and a kiss on the forehead. Papa, is there a Santa Claus? My little friends say he isn’t real.

He was coroner’s assistant, Dr. Philip O’Hanlon. She was 8-year-old Laura Virginia O’Hanlon.

Dr. O’Hanlon neither sent his little girl to ask her mother nor did he try to answer, himself. He suggested she write the New York Sun newspaper. “If you see it in The Sun”, he said, “it’s so.”

So it is a little girl’s note made its way across the city to the New York Sun, to the desk of Edward Page Mitchell. The hard core science fiction buff will remember Mitchell for tales about time travel, invisibility and man-computing-machine cyborgs long before the likes of H.G. Wells ever thought about such things but on this day, the editor and sometimes author had a job to do.

Mitchell believed the letter was worthy of reply and brought the assignment to copy writer Francis “Frank” Pharcellus Church.

It was a curious choice.

Church was not the dilettante, partisan idler who’d style himself today, as “journalist”. This was a hard-bitten News Man of the old school, a cynic, street reporter, atheist and former Civil War correspondent who’d seen it all and didn’t believe the half of it.

Picture Perry White, the irascible editor-in-chief of the fictional Daily Planet newspaper in the old Superman series, and you’ve got a pretty good picture of Frank Church. You can almost hear the walrus-mustachioed old curmudgeon grumbling across the ages on the way back to his desk, a little girl’s note in his hand. “Why me”?

The old grump didn’t even want his name associated with the reply.

The New York Sun published Church’s reply on September 21, 1897.

Dear Editor, I am 8 years old.
Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
Papa says, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.”
Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?
Virginia O’Hanlon
115 W. 95th St.

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole truth and knowledge. You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart.

Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding. No Santa Claus! Thank God he lives and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10 thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood”.

Church’s friends, family and colleagues scarcely knew the man had it in him. You can almost imagine the excitement of a little girl, scouring the pages of The Sun for two months to find nothing and then…THAT. Through the rest of that Christmas season to this day and on for the rest of her 81 years she would never forget, that reply.

Frank Church’s letter would become the most widely reprinted editorial in the history of the English language albeit anonymously until the year of his death, in 1906. According to New York Sun internal policies, that’s when Church was finally revealed as responding editor and author of that timeless response.

Virginia went on to marry one Edward Douglas in 1910, a man who stuck around just long enough to abandon her with the couple’s first child, as yet unborn. Not exactly a credit to his sex, that one.

Perhaps the childlike sense of delight in that newspaper column is what helped the young mother through her darkest hours. Laura Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas went on to devote her life’s work to children.   Following Bachelor’s, Masters and Doctorate degrees at Hunter, Columbia and Fordham University, O’Hanlon went on to become a lifelong teacher, assistant principal and finally principal.

Virginia’s childhood home is now a school called The Studio School offering an academic scholarship, called the Virginia O’Hanlon.

In 1932, The Sun’s response was adapted to a cantata, the only known newspaper editorial ever set to classical music.  The 1989 film Prancer contained a fictional editorial entitled “Yes, Santa, there is a Virginia“.
Every year at Christmas, Virginia’s letter and Frank’s response are read aloud at a Yule log ceremony at Church’s alma mater, Columbia College.

In a 1960 appearance on the Perry Como Show, Virginia told the host her letter has been “answered for me thousands of times.”

Laura Virginia O’Hanlon Douglas kept the name of her long-since absconded husband for the rest of her life, according to the custom of the day. She passed away on May 13, 1971, at the age of 81.

She received a steady stream of mail about her letter throughout her long life and never failed to pen a personal reply, including a copy of Church’s column. She was quite sickly toward the end but, throughout countless interviews over the course of her 81 years she’d always credit the Sun’s editorial with changing her life, for the better.

Perhaps it was that Christmas Spirit or whatever you’d like to call it, which most of us have learned to experience, but one time a year. For Virginia O’Hanlon that sense of warmth, of generosity and kindness to be found at the bottom of all human hearts but one time a year, never really seems to have gone away.

So, may all the cynics come to understand, at this Christmas season and beyond. Yes, Virginia, there really IS a Santa Claus.

December 22, 1944 Forgotten Angel

The Battle of the Bulge is a familiar tale: The massive German offensive bursting out of the frozen Ardennes forest. December 16, 1944. The desperate drive to capture the Belgian port of Antwerp, vital to German re-supply efforts.

Battle of the Bulge

The terrain was considered unsuitable for such an attack. The tactical surprise was complete, British and American forces separated and driven back, their positions forming an inward “bulge” on wartime battle maps.

The story of the “Battered Bastards” is likewise, well known. 22,800 Americans, outnumbered five to one in some places and surrounded, in the do-or-die fight to hold the indispensable crossroads, of Bastogne. The German demand to surrender, of December 22. The response from American General Anthony McAuliffe. The one word response, “Nuts”, the American slang, confusing to the German delegation.

The siege of Bastogne would last another four days, the German encirclement at last broken by elements of George S. Patton’s 3rd Army. By the end of January, the last great effort of German arms was spent and driven back behind original lines.

Bastogne

Historian Stephen Ambrose wrote “Band of Brothers” nearly fifty years later, a non-fiction account later broadcast as an HBO mini-series, of the same name. The story refers to a black nurse named Anna. There is a brief appearance and then she is gone. No one knew who Anna was, or even if she was real.

Sixty-one years after Bastogne, military historian Martin King was conducting research for a book, Voices of the Bulge.  The knock on the door came in October 2007, in a geriatric home outside of Brussels.

In the months following the Great War, Henri Chiwy (pronounced “SHE-wee”) was a veterinarian, working in the Belgian colony of the Congo Free State. The name of the Congolese woman who bore his child is unrecorded, the name of their baby girl, Augusta Marie.

Nurses

Augusta Chiwy came back to Belgium when she was nine, one of the luckier of thousands born to European fathers, and African mothers. Back to the doctor’s home in Bastogne, a small town of 9,000 where Augusta was loved and cared for by her father and his sister, whom the girl knew as “aunt Caroline”.

Augusta was educated and raised a Catholic. She always wanted to teach but, due to the rancid racial attitudes of that time and place, it would not do to have a black woman teaching white children. She became a nurse instead, on the advice of her father and his brother, a well-known Bastogne physician.

Nursing school was about 100 miles north. Augusta became a qualified nurse in 1943 and returned home the following year for Christmas. She arrived on December 16, the day Adolf Hitler launched his surprise offensive.

Bastogne was soon surrounded, part of one of the fiercest and bloodiest battles, of WW2. Poorly equipped American GIs were outnumbered five to one. These guys didn’t even have winter uniforms.

Bastogne

US Army Doctor Jack Prior was desperate, the abandoned building serving as military aid station, home to some 100 wounded GIs. Thirty of those were seriously wounded. With virtually no medical equipment or medicine and the only other medical officer an Ohio dentist, Dr. Prior badly needed nursing help.

Augusta Chiwy did not hesitate to volunteer, knowing full well that she would be executed, if caught.

2BAF80BC00000578-3211358-image-a-42_1440616862244
Scene from the HBO mini series, “A Band of Brothers”

Working conditions were grisly in the weeks that followed. With no surgical instruments and no anesthesia, amputations and other procedures were performed with an army knife, with cognac to dull the patient’s pain. On Christmas eve, a direct hit from a 500-pound bomb hit one hospital building, instantly killing dozens of wounded GIs and the only other nurse, Renée Lemaire.  She would be remembered as “The Angel of Bastogne.”

Bastogne building

Augusta Chiwy was in a neighboring building at the time. The explosion blew the petite nurse through a wall but, unhurt, she picked herself up and went back to work.  There were grisly injuries and many died due to inadequate medical facilities, but many lived, their families reunited thanks to the tireless work of Dr. Jack Prior, and nurse Augusta Chiwy.

Given the month of hell the pair had been through, Augusta was heartbroken when Dr. Prior had to move out, in January.  The pair exchanged addresses and stayed in touch, writing letters and exchanging small gifts, of candy.  They last saw each other in 2004, when Dr. Prior returned from his home state of Vermont, for the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.

Prior, Chiwy

Augusta Chiwy suffered symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition poorly understood at that time.  She would go long periods without speaking, becoming quiet and withdrawn even years later.  She married a Belgian soldier in 1959 and the couple had two children.  It would be twenty years, before  she resumed her nursing career.  She almost never spoke of her experience in Bastogne.

The forgotten angel of Bastogne was eighty-six when the knock came on the door of that Belgian nursing home.  It took months for the Scottish historian to coax the story out of her.

Thanks to King’s efforts, Augusta Chiwy would finally receive the recognition she had earned.

Chiwy and King

“On June 24, 2011, she was made a Knight in the Order of the Crown by King Albert II of Belgium. Six months later she received the U.S. Army’s Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service. And on March 21, 2014, Augusta was recognized by her hometown as a Bastogne Citizen of Honor”.  http://www.augustachiwy.org

When asked about her heroism, she’d always say the same thing: “I only did what I had to do.”

Augusta Marie Chiwy died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 94, on August 23, 2015. How many lives would have been cut short, will never be known.  But for the selfless and untiring efforts, of the Forgotten Angel of Bastogne.

Hat tip to http://www.augustachiwy.org, for most of the images used in this essay

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November 21, 1916 Unsinkable

There was denial aplenty that night, from the well dressed passengers filing onto the decks. Violet Jessop counted the lighted portholes as the small boat creaked ever downward. One row, then two: every abandoned stateroom a tableau. Three, and four: feathered hats on dressers, scattered jewels, sparkling abandoned, on table tops. Five and then six: each lighted circle revealing a snapshot, a last glimpse, soon to slip out of sight.

The maiden voyage of the largest ship afloat left the port of Southampton, England on April 10, 1912, carrying 2,224 passengers and crew. An accident was narrowly averted only minutes later, as Titanic passed the moored liners SS City of New York and Oceanic.

The smaller ships lifted in the bow wave formed by Titanic’s passing, then dropped into the trough. New York’s mooring cables snapped, swinging her about, stern-first. Collision was averted by a bare 4-feet as the panicked crew of the tugboat Vulcan struggled to bring New York under tow.

Edward Smith

By the evening of the 14th, Titanic was 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, conditions clear, calm and cold. There were warnings of drifting ice from other ships in the area, but it was generally believed that ice posed little danger to large vessels at this time. 

Captain Edward Smith opined that he “[couldn’t] imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.”

Lookout Frederick Fleet alerted the bridge of an iceberg dead ahead at 11:40pm. First Officer William Murdoch ordered the engines put in reverse, veering the ship to the left. Lookouts were relieved, thinking that collision was averted. Below the surface, the starboard side ground into the iceberg, opening a gash the length of a football field.

Violet_jessop_titanic

The ship was built to survive flooding in four watertight compartments. The iceberg had opened five. As Titanic began to lower at the bow, it soon became clear. The great ship was doomed.

Those aboard were poorly prepared for such an emergency. The vessel was built for 64 wooden lifeboats, enough for 4,000, but the White Star Liner carried only 16 wooden lifeboats and four collapsibles.

Regulations then in effect required enough room for 990 people. Titanic carried enough to accommodate 1,178.

As it was there was room for over half of those on board, provided that each boat was filled to capacity. So strictly did Royal Navy officer Charles Lightoller adhere to the “women and children first” directive, that evacuation took the form of women and children, only. Many boats were launched, half-full. The first lifeboat in the water, rated at 65 passengers, launched with 28 aboard.

Lightoller himself survived, only by clinging to the bottom of an overturned raft.

titanic-01-wallpaper

Violet Jessop was among those first to leave. A man tossed her a bundle with the words, “ look after this, will you?“. It was a baby.

As ship’s nurse, Jessop was there to look after the comfort of the White Star Line passengers. Now, this small boat full of disoriented women was being lowered into the cold and darkness of night, while all aboard the great vessel was light, and comfort, and warmth.

Denial is a funny thing, that psychological defense mechanism described by Sigmund Freud, in which a person rejects a plain fact too uncomfortable to contemplate. There was denial aplenty that night, from the well dressed passengers filing onto the decks. Violet Jessop counted the lighted portholes as the small boat creaked ever downward. One row, then two: every abandoned stateroom a tableau. Three, and four: feathered hats on dressers, scattered jewels, sparkling abandoned, on table tops. Five and then six: each lighted circle revealing a snapshot, a last glimpse, soon to slip out of sight.

Floating on the still, frigid waters of the north Atlantic, Jessop must have wondered about Captain Smith. This was not their first cruise together. This wasn’t even their first shipwreck.

The White Star Line’s RMS Olympic set sail for New York seven months earlier with Captain Edward Smith, commanding. Violet Jessop was on duty as the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Hawke performed mechanical tests, on a course parallel to the trans-Atlantic liner. Something went wrong and the tiller froze, swinging the bow of the Edgar-class cruiser toward the liner. Hydrodynamic forces took over and the two ships collided, just after noon. The hull of the cruiser was smashed, two great gashes carved into the side of Olympic. One was below the water line.

Two compartments flooded, but the watertight doors did their job. Olympic limped back to Southampton for repairs. Captain Smith and Violet Jessop moved on to the maiden voyage of her sister ship, the unsinkable RMS Titanic.

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Denial turned to horror that frigid April night in 1912, when six rows of lights became five and then four, and Titanic began to rise by the stern.  RMS Carpathia arrived on the scene around 4am in response to distress calls, and diverted to New York with survivors.  Four days later, a crowd of 40,000 awaited the arrival of 705 survivors , in spite of a cold, driving rain.  It would take four full days to compile and release the list of casualties.

Violet Jessop survived that night.  Captain Smith, did not.

Back in 1907, Director General of the White Star Line J. Bruce Ismay planned a series of three sister ships, to compete with the Cunard lines’ Mauritania, and Lusitania. What these lacked in speed would be made up in size, and luxurious comfort. The three vessels were to be named OlympicTitanic and Gigantic.

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One of Britannic’s funnels, in transit to the ship

That last name was quietly changed following the Titanic disaster and, on December 12, 1915, the newly christened Britannic was ready for service.

Two years later, the world was at war. Nurse Jessop was working aboard HMHS (His Majesty’s Hospital Ship) Britannic. On November 21, 1916, HMHS Britannic was on station near Kea in the Aegean Sea when she was struck by a German mine, or torpedo. Violet Jessop calmly made her way to her cabin, She’d been here, before. There she collected a ring, a clock and a prayer book, and even helped another nurse collect her composure.

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After the Carpathia rescue, Jessop complained to friends and family that she missed her toothbrush. Her wisecracking brother Patrick had quipped next time you wreck, “look after your toothbrush”.

This time, she didn’t forget her toothbrush.

Britannic should have survived even with five watertight compartments filled, but nurses defied orders and opened the windows, to ventilate the wards.   In fifty-five minutes, HMHS Britannic replaced her sister ship Titanic, as the largest vessel on the bottom of the sea.

Fortunately, daytime hours combined with warmer weather and more numerous lifeboats, to lessen the cost in lives.  1,035 were safely evacuated from the sinking vessel, keeping the death toll in the Britannic wreck, to thirty.

Violet Jessop survived three of the most famous shipwrecks of her age, and never tired of working at sea. She returned to work as stewardess aboard RMS Olympic after the war, before retiring to private life and passing away, in 1971.

John Maxtone-Graham, editor of “Titanic Survivor”, the story of Jessop’s life, remembers one last story about “Miss Unsinkable”. Fifty-nine years after the wreck, the phone rang late one night, during a violent thunderstorm. A woman’s voice at the other end asked “Is this the Violet Jessop who was a stewardess on the Titanic and rescued a baby?” “Yes” came the reply, “who is this?” The woman laughed: “I was that baby.”

November 5, 2004 I did not die

The elegy has been set to music and featured in television series and movies the world over and even appears in the multi-player on-line game, World of Warcraft. Even so, the name and even nationality of the author, remained unknown.

For many among us, 2020 has been a time of grievous loss. My family is no exception.

During the 1930s, Mary Elizabeth Frye was a Baltimore housewife and amateur florist, the wife of clothing merchant, Claud Frye.

A young Jewish woman was living with the couple at this time, unable to visit her sick mother in Germany, due to anti-Semitic violence of the pre-war period.  Her name was Margaret Schwarzkopf.

Margaret was bereft when her mother died, heartbroken that she could never “stand by my mother’s grave and shed a tear.” Mrs. Frye took up a brown paper shopping bag, and wrote out twelve lines. Eighty-seven words arranged in iambic tetrameter, save for two lines.

She didn’t title the poem, nor did she ever publish, or copyright the work.  People heard about it and liked it. Frye would make copies and send them to those who asked, but that’s about it.

Do not stand at my grave and weep…

The short verse came to be read at funerals and similar occasions, the world over. The first four lines appear on the Chukpi Lhara, that cold and silent memorial to climbers who never returned, from the slopes of Everest. “Desperate Housewives” character Karen McClusky recited the verse as she spread the ashes of her best friend on a baseball field and yet, for three-score years and more, few knew from whence the elegy had come.

Chukpi Lhara

There were many claims to authorship, including attributions to traditional and Native American origins.

I am not there. I do not sleep...

The unknown poem has been translated into Danish, Dutch, French, German, Hebrew, Ilocano, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog and other languages, appearing on countless bereavement cards and read over untold services.

In the United Kingdom, many heard it for the first time in 1995, when a grieving father read it over BBC radio in honor of his son, a soldier slain by a bomb in Northern Ireland. The son had left the poem with a few personal effects and marked the envelope ‘To all my loved ones’.

I am a thousand winds that blow…

For that year’s National Poetry Day, the British television program The Bookworm conducted a poll to learn the nation’s favorite poems. The top picks were published in book form, the preface describing the untitled work as “the unexpected poetry success of the year…despite it being outside the competition.”

The elegy has been set to music and featured in television series and movies and even appears in the multi-player on-line game, World of Warcraft.

Even so, the name, even nationality of the author, remained unknown.

I am the diamond glints on snow…

Abigail Van Buren, better known as “Dear Abby”, researched the history of the poem in 1998 and determined that Mrs. Frye was, after all, the author.

Mary Elizabeth Frye passed away in Baltimore Maryland on September 4, 2004. She was ninety-eight.

The Times of Great Britain published the work on November 5, as part of Frye’s obituary. ‘The verse demonstrated a remarkable power to soothe loss”, wrote the Times. “It became popular, crossing national boundaries for use on bereavement cards and at funerals regardless of race, religion or social status”.