December 24, 1822 A Right Jolly old Elf

Santa Claus may be the most powerful cultural idea, ever conceived.  This year, Christmas sales are expected to exceed one Trillion dollars.  Not bad for a 2,000-year old saint, best remembered for gift giving with no expectation of anything in return.

The historical life of St. Nicholas is shrouded in legend.  Born in modern-day Turkey on March 15, AD270, Nicholas was the only child of rich parents who died in a plague, leaving the boy a wealthy orphan.

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1689 fresco depicts St. Nicholas, giving to a school

Nicholas was raised in the Christian faith and became an early bishop in the Greek church. One of many stories concerning the bishop’s generosity involves a destitute father, unable to raise a dowry sufficient to marry off his three daughters. On two consecutive nights, Nicholas crept up to the man’s window, and dropped a small sack of gold coins. On the third night, the man stayed up to learn the identity of his secret benefactor, only to be asked to keep the name, secret. 

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St. Nicholas saving the Three Maidens, Decani monastery, Kosovo

Saint Nicholas passed on December 6 in the year 343. He’s entombed in a marble cathedral dedicated to his name, in Myra.

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The “Sinterklass” of the Netherlands, rides a white horse

Nicholas is remembered as the patron saint of whole nations and cities such as Amsterdam and Moscow, revered among the early Christian saints and remembered for a legendary habit of secret gift-giving.

Some ideas take hold in the popular imagination, while others fade into obscurity.  The “Three Daughters” episode made it into nearly every artistic medium available at that time, from frescoes to carvings and windows, even theatrical performances.

The Patron Saint not only of sailors, but of ships and their cargoes, the seas were the internet of the day, and the story of St. Nick spread from the Balkans to Holland, from England to Crete.

Krampus-340x540The Feast of St. Nicholas took hold around the 6th of December.  Children and other marginal groups such as old women and slaves could receive gifts, but only by demanding them.  The secret giving of gifts appeared sometime around the year 1200.

On the continent, legends of St. Nicholas combined with Pagan traditions and developed in quirky directions, including an evil doppelgänger who accompanies St. Nick on his rounds.  As early as the 11th century, the Krampus may be expected to snatch bad little tykes away from parts of Germany, Austria and the Alpine villages of northern Italy, never to be seen again.

In eastern Europe, the witch Frau Perchta “The Disemboweller” was said to place pieces of silver in the shoes of children and servants who’d been good over the year, and replace the organs of the bad ones, with garbage. Yikes.

In French-speaking regions, Père Fouettard (Father Whipper) accompanies Père Noël on gift-giving rounds, dispensing beatings and/or lumps of coal to naughty boys & girls. In some German speaking regions, the malevolent Schmutzli accompanies Samichlaus, with a twig broom to spank wicked children.

Never mind Santa Claus. The Schmutzli is watching.

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Samichlaus and the Schmutzli

The “Little Ice Age” of the 13th century, led to a proliferation of chimneys.  Windows and doors were the things of thieves and vagabonds, while the chimney led directly to the warm heart of the home.  St. Nick made his first gift-giving appearance via the chimney in a three daughters fresco, painted sometime in 1392, in Serbia.

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The Ghost of Christmas present as illustrated by John Leech, in Charles Dickens’ classic, a Christmas Carol

St. Nicholas was beginning to be seen as part of the family outside of the Church, which is probably why he survived what came next.  Saints reigned in the Christian world until the 16th century, when the Protestant reformation rejected such “idolatry” as a corruption of Christianity.

Whatever you called him:  Sinterklaos, Saint-Nikloi or Zinniklos, St. Nick went away entirely in England and Scotland during the time of Henry VIII, giving way to the spirit of Christmas cheer in the person of one Father Christmas.  England would no longer keep the feast of the Saint on December 6.  The celebration moved to December 25, to coincide with Christmas.

Protestants adopted as gift bringer the Baby Jesus or Christkindl, later morphing into Kris Kringle.

Puritan arrivals to New England rejected Christmas and everything with it, as “un-Christian”.  In 1644, Massachusetts levied a fine of five shillings, on anyone observing the holiday.

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Santa Claus 1863, by Thomas Nast

Sinterklaas survived the iconoclasm of the Reformation in places like Holland, transferring to the 17th century settlement of New Amsterdam:  what we now know as the new world port city of New York.

Sinterklass blended with Father Christmas, to create a distinctly American Santeclaus, which began to take hold in the 19th century.

The Christmas “celebrations” of the period, looked more like Mardi Gras than what we know today.  Drunk and rowdy gangs wandered the streets of New York, Philadelphia and the cities of the northeast, something between a noisy mob and a marching band.  Men fired guns into the air and banged or blew on anything that would make noise.  Mobs would beat up the unfortunate, and break into the homes of the “upper classes”, demanding food and liquor.

New York philanthropist John Pintard, the man responsible for the holidays celebrating the fourth of July and George Washington’s birthday, popularized an image first set forth by Washington Irving, in his satirical story A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker, depicting St. Nicholas bringing gifts to good little boys and girls, and switches with which to tan the hides of bad kids.

220px-MerryOldSantaThe unknown genius who published and illustrated A Children’s Friend in 1821, first depicted “Santa Claus” not as a Catholic bishop, but as a non-sectarian adult in a fur lined robe, complete with a sleigh inexplicably powered by a single reindeer, coming in through the chimney not on December 6, but on Christmas eve.

An anonymous poem believed to have been written on December 24, 1822 and later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, began with the words: “T’was the night before Christmas, and all through the house“…

A Visit From St. Nicholas“, better known by its first line, gave us the first description of the modern Santa Claus and a tool for domesticating the occasion, agreeable to law enforcement for calming the rowdy streets, to manufacturers and retailers for selling goods, to the church to make way for a family friendly day of worship and to parents, to control unruly children.

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Goody Santa Claus 1889

The “Right Jolly old Elf” took his modern form thanks to the pen of illustrator and editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast, creator of the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant and scourge of the Tammany Hall political machine which had swindled New York city, out of millions.

The idea of a Mrs. Claus seems to come from a poem by Katharine Lee Bates of the Cape Cod Curmudgeon’s own town of Falmouth, Massachusetts.

Today, the author is best known for her 1895  poem “Pikes Peak”, later set to music and widely known as “America the Beautiful”.

Tonight, NASA may be expected to track Santa and his sleigh drawn by eight reindeer, though none are any longer, all that tiny.  Santa Claus will appear around the planet. Regional variations include Santa’s arriving on a surfboard in Hawaii.  In Australia, he’s pulled by six white kangaroos.  In Cajun country, Papa Noël arrives in a pirogue, drawn by eight alligators.

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Santa Claus may be the most powerful cultural idea, ever conceived.  This year, Christmas sales are expected to exceed one Trillion dollars.  Not bad for a 2,000-year old saint, best remembered for gift giving with no expectation of anything in return.

Fun fact:  Today, the port city of Bari on the Adriatic coast of Italy is remembered for the WW2-era mustard gas accident, which spawned the discovery of modern chemotherapy drugs. A thousand years earlier, city fathers feared growing Muslim influence over the tomb of Saint Nicholas, and went to retrieve his remains.  Find him, they did.  Saint Nicholas’ large bones were removed and brought back as holy relics to Bari, where they remain, to this day.  Smaller fragments were removed during the 1st Crusade and brought back to Venice, or enshrined in basilica from Moscow to Normandy.  According to one local antiquarian, the “Tomb of Saint Nicholas” in Ireland, is probably that of a local priest.

Feature image, top of page:  Hat tip GP Cox.  I don’t know where you got it, but I Love this image.  Merry Christmas and all the best for a healthy and prosperous New Year to you and yours, from Mr. & Mrs. Cape Cod Curmudgeon.

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

December 21, 2012 The Apocalypse is Postponed

There have been no fewer than 207 End-of-the-World predictions over the last 2,000 years.

During the recent past, one of the sillier bits of pop culture nonsense served up to us, may be that time the world came to an end on December 21, 2012.

It was the Mayan Apocalypse. A day of giant solar flares, when the planets aligned to cause massive tidal catastrophe, and the Earth collided with the imaginary planet Nibiru.  Over in China, Lu Zhenghai even built himself an Ark. Sort of.

If I’d only been smart enough back then, to sell survival kits.

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Lu Zhenghai’s ark, 2012. H/T Huffpo

End-of-the-world scenarios are nothing new. In 1806, the “Prophet Hen of Leeds” was laying eggs, inscribed with the message “Christ is coming”. It was the end of times.  The Judgement Day cometh.

The story, as told in the book “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,” written by Scottish author Charles Mackay in 1841, tells the story of a “panic[ked] terror”, when a “great number of visitors” traveled from far and near, to peer at the chicken Nostradamus.

befunky_21639Turns out that Mary Bateman, the bird’s owner and a serial fraudster, was writing these messages with some kind of “corrosive ink”, maybe an acid, and reinserting them into the poor chicken. The “Yorkshire Witch” met her end on a gibbet, hanged for the poisoned pudding she gave that couple to relieve their chest pain.  But I digress.

If you were around in 1986, you may remember the great excitement, concerning  the return of Halley’s Comet. The celestial body only comes around once every 76 years and, the time before that, it was the end of the world. In 1910, the New York Times reported the discovery of the deadly poison cyanogen, in the comet’s tail. French astronomer Camille Flammarion predicted the gas would “would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.”

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French postcard, 1910

Hucksters sold comet pills. Doomsayers claimed that massive tides would cause the Pacific to empty, into the Atlantic. Finally, the end of days arrived. May 20, 1910.  And then it went.  There was no end of the world though, tragically, 16-year-old Amy Hopkins fell to her death from a rooftop, while awaiting the comet.

There have been no fewer than 207 End-of-the-World predictions over the last 2,000 years, if Wikipedia is any source. Polls conducted in 2012 across twenty countries revealed percentages from 6% in France to 22% in the United States and Turkey, believing the world would come to an end, in their lifetimes.

MayanCalendar-300x3005,000 years ago, the Mayan civilization of modern-day Mexico and Central America developed a sophisticated calendar, working with a base numerical system of 20.

It was three calendars, really. The “Long Count” was mainly used for historical purposes, able to specify any date within a 2,880,000 day cycle. The Haab was a civil calendar, consisting of 18 months of 20 days, and an “Uayeb” of five days. The Tzolkin was the “divine” calendar, used mainly for ceremonial and religious purposes. Consisting of 20 periods of 13 days, the Tzolkin goes through a complete cycle every 260 days. The significance of this cycle is unknown, though it may be connected with the 263-day orbit of Venus. There is no year in the Haab or Tzolkin calendars, though the two can be combined to specify a particular day within a 52-year cycle.

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Get it? Neither do I.  Suffice it to say that the world of the Mayan Gods lasted 5,125 years and 133 days, a period of time known as 13 b’ak’tun.

The last Long Count began in August 3114 BC.  Counting forward, scholars decided on December 21, 2012, as the end of the cycle.

An estimated 2% of the American public believed this betokened the end of the world. Online searches went up for one-way flights to Turkey and the South of France, both of which were rumored to be safe havens from the apocalypse.

They should have asked a Mayan, who may have been amused by all those crazy Gringos.  The world wasn’t coming to an end.  The calendar just rolls over and begins again at “Zero”, like the old odometers that only went up to 100,000 miles.  What a party that could have been, though.  The “New Year” to end all New Years.  Only comes around once every 5,125 years, plus 133 days.  Happy Long Count.

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

December 11, 1970 The Man who saved a Billion People

It’s hard to get the modern head around the notion of “food insecurity”.  We’re not talking about what’s in the fridge. This is the problem of acute malnutrition, of epidemic starvation, of cyclical famine and massive increases in mortality, due to starvation and hunger-induced disease.

All too often, history is measured in terms of the monsters. The ten worst dictators of the last 1½ centuries account for the loss of nearly 150 million lives. Most of us remember their names. At least some of them. Who remembers the name of the man who Saved the lives of seven times the number, of this whole Parade of Horribles, put together?

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We live in a time and place where the National Institutes of Health (NIH) can report “The U.S. is one of the wealthiest countries in the world and accordingly has high obesity rates; one-third of the population has obesity plus another third is overweight”.

It wasn’t always so. In 1820, 94% of the world’s population lived in “absolute poverty.” American economic historian and scientist Robert Fogel, winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Economics, wrote that: “Individuals in the bottom 20% of the caloric distributions of France and England near the end of the eighteenth century, lacked the energy for sustained work and were effectively excluded from the labor force.”

It’s hard to get the modern head around the notion of “food insecurity”.  We’re not talking about what’s in the fridge. This is the problem of acute malnutrition, of epidemic starvation, of cyclical famine and massive increases in mortality, due to starvation and hunger-induced disease.

Nels Olson Borlaug once told his grandson Norman, “You’re wiser to fill your head now if you want to fill your belly later on.” An Iowa farm kid educated during the Great Depression, Norman Ernest Borlaug periodically put his studies on hold, in order to earn money. A Civilian Conservation Corps leader working with unemployed people on CCC projects, many of his co-workers faced persistent and real, hunger. Borlaug later recalled, “I saw how food changed them … All of this left scars on me”.

norman-borlaug1Borlaug earned his Bachelor of Science in Forestry, in 1937. Nearing the end of his undergraduate education, he attended a lecture by Professor Elvin Charles Stakman discussing plant rust disease, a parasitic fungus which feeds on phytonutrients in wheat, oats, and barley crops.

Stakman was exploring special breeding methods, resulting in rust-resistant plants. The research greatly interested Borlaug, who later enrolled at the University of Minnesota, to study plant pathology under Stakman. Borlaug earned a Master of Science degree in 1940, and a Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics, in 1942.

Borlaug attempted to enlist in the military following the attack on Pearl Harbor, but his application was rejected under wartime labor regulations. He was put to work in a lab, doing research for the United States armed forces.

Between 1939 and ’41, Mexican farmers suffered major crop failures, due to stem rust. In July 1944, Borlaug declined an offer to double his salary, traveling instead to Mexico City where he headed a new program focusing on soil development, maize and wheat production, and plant pathology.

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“Pure line” (genotypically identical) plant varieties possess only one to a handful of disease-resistance genes. Random mutations of rusts and other plant diseases overcome pure line survival strategies, resulting in crop failures. “Multi-line” plant breeding involves back-crossing and hybridizing plant varieties, transferring multiple disease-resistance genes into recurrent parents. In the first ten years Borlaug worked for the Mexican agricultural program, he and his team made over 6,000 individual crossings of wheat. Mexico transformed from a net-importer of food, to a net exporter.

In the early sixties, Borlaug’s dwarf spring wheat strains went out for multi-location testing around the world, in a program administered by the US Department of Agriculture. In March 1963, Borlaug himself traveled to India with Dr. Robert Glenn Anderson, along with 220-pounds of seed from four of the most promising strains.

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The Indian subcontinent experienced minor famine and starvation at this time, limited only by the US’ shipping 1/5th of its wheat production into the region in 1966 – ’67. Despite resistance from Indian and Pakistani bureaucracies, Borlaug imported 550 tons of seeds.

American biologist Paul Ehrlich wrote in his 1968 bestselling book The Population Bomb, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over … In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” Ehrlich went on: “I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971…India couldn’t possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980.”

Ehrlich could not have been more comprehensively wrong.

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Borlaug’s initial yields were higher than any other crop, ever harvested in South Asia. Countries from Pakistan to India to Turkey imported 80,000 tons and more of seeds. By the time of Ehrlich’s book release in 1968, massive crop yields had substituted famine and starvation, with a host of new problems. There were labor shortages at harvest, and insufficient numbers of bullock carts to haul it to the threshing floor. Jute bags were needed, along with trucks, rail cars, and grain storage facilities. Local governments even closed school buildings, to use them for grain storage.

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In three years, the world increase in cereal-grain production was nothing short of spectacular, dubbed a “Green Revolution”.   Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, protesting to be only “one member of a vast team made up of many organizations, officials, thousands of scientists, and millions of farmers – mostly small and humble…”

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Norman Borlaug works with Chinese agricultural leaders, 1974

With mass starvation or widespread deforestation being the only historic alternatives, the “Borlaug Hypothesis” introduced a third option, that of increasing yields on existing farmland.  The work however, was not without critics. Environmentalists criticized what they saw as large-scale monoculture, in nations previously reliant on subsistence farming. Critics railed against “agribusiness” and the building of roads through what had once been wilderness.

David Seckler, Director General of the International Water Management Institute said “The environmental community in the 1980s went crazy pressuring the donor countries and the big foundations not to support ideas like inorganic fertilizers for Africa.”

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Norman Borlaug, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, December 11, 1970

The Rockefeller and Ford foundations withdrew funding, along with the World Bank. Well fed environmentalist-types congratulated themselves on “success”, as the Ethiopian famine of 1984-’85 destroyed over a million lives. Millions more were left destitute, on the brink of starvation.

Borlaug fired back, “[S]ome of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.

Borlaug became involved at the invitation of Ryoichi Sasakawa, chairman of the Japan Shipbuilding Industry Foundation, who wondered why methods used so successfully in Asia, were not being employed in Africa. Since that time, the Sasakawa Africa Association (SAA) has trained over 8 million farmers in SAA farming techniques. Maize crops developed in African countries have tripled, along with increased yields of wheat, sorghum, cassava, and cowpeas.

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The world population when Ehrlich released his book in 1968, was about 3.53 billion. Today, that number stands at 7.7 billion and, when we hear about starvation, such events are almost exclusively, man-made. The American magician and entertainer Penn Jillette once described Norman Borlaug as “The greatest human being who ever lived…and you’ve probably never heard of him.” Let that be the answer to the self-satisfied and well-fed, environmentalist types.

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“I now say that the world has the technology—either available or well advanced in the research pipeline—to feed on a sustainable basis a population of 10 billion people. The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use this new technology? While the affluent nations can certainly afford to adopt ultra low-risk positions, and pay more for food produced by the so-called ‘organic’ methods, the one billion chronically undernourished people of the low income, food-deficit nations cannot.” – Norman Borlaug, 2000

December 2, 1943  A Savior of Millions

How modern chemotherapy drugs emerged form the trenches of WW1

Ancient Greek mythology depicts Hercules, poisoning arrows with the venom of the Hydra. Both sides in the battle for Troy used poisoned arrows, according to the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer.   Alexander the great encountered poison arrows and fire weapons in the Indus valley of India, in the fourth century, BC.  Chinese chronicles describe an arsenic laden “soul-hunting fog”, used to disperse a peasant revolt, in AD178.

The French were first to use poison weapons in the modern era, firing tear gas grenades containing xylil bromide against German forces in the first month of the Great War, August 1914.

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Imperial Germany was first to give serious study to chemical weapons of war, early experiments with irritants taking place at the battle of Neuve-Chapelle in October 1914, and with tear gas at Bolimów on January 31, 1915 and again at Nieuport, that March.

The first widespread use of poison gas, in this case chlorine, came on April 22, 1915, at the second battle of Ypres.

The story of gas warfare is inextricably linked with that of WW1.  124,000 tons of the stuff was produced by all sides by the end of the war, accounting for 1,240,853 casualties, including the agonizing death of 91,198.

Had the war continued into 1919, technological advances promised a new and fresh hell, unimaginable to the modern reader.

Today we think of chemical agents in WW2 as being limited to the death camps of the Nazis, but such weapons were far more widespread.  The Imperial Japanese military frequently used vesicant (blister) agents such as Lewisite and mustard gas against Chinese military and civilians, and in the hideous “medical experiments” conducted on live prisoners at Unit 731 and Unit 516.  Emperor Hirohito personally authorized the use of toxic gas during the 1938 Battle of Wuhan, on no fewer than 375 occasions.

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The Italian military destroyed every living creature in its path during the 1936 Colonial war with Ethiopia, in what Emperor Haile Selassie called “a fine, death-dealing rain”.

Nazi Germany possessed some 45,000 tons of blister and nerve agents, though such weapons were rarely used against western adversaries.  The “Ostfront” – the battle on the eastern front – was a different story.  Russian resistance fighters and Red Army soldiers were attacked, most notably during the assault on the catacombs of Odessa in 1941, the 1942 siege of Sebastopol, and the nearby caves and tunnels of the Adzhimuskai quarry, where “poison gas was released into the tunnels, killing all but a few score of the (3,000+) Soviet defenders”.

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Russian soldier in a rubber gas mask, ww2

None of the western allies resorted to chemical warfare in WW2, despite having accumulated over twice the chemical stockpile as that of Nazi Germany.  The policy seems to have been one of “mutually assured destruction”, where no one wanted to be first to go there, but all sides reserved the option.  Great Britain possessed massive quantities of mustard, chlorine, Lewisite, Phosgene and Paris Green, awaiting the retaliatory strike should Nazi Germany resort to such weapons on the beaches of Normandy.  General Alan Brooke, Commander-in-Chief of the Home Forces, said he “[H]ad every intention of using sprayed mustard gas on the beaches” in the event of a German landing on the British home islands.

The official American policy toward chemical weapons was enunciated by President Franklin Roosevelt, in 1937.

“I am doing everything in my power to discourage the use of gases and other chemicals in any war between nations. While, unfortunately, the defensive necessities of the United States call for study of the use of chemicals in warfare, I do not want the Government of the United States to do anything to aggrandize or make permanent any special bureau of the Army or the Navy engaged in these studies. I hope the time will come when the Chemical Warfare Service can be entirely abolished”.

The Geneva Protocols on 1925 banned the use of chemical weapons, but not their manufacture, or transport.  By 1942, the U.S. Chemical Corps employed some 60,000 soldiers and civilians and controlled a $1 Billion budget.

In August 1943, Roosevelt authorized the delivery of chemical munitions containing mustard gas, to the Mediterranean theater. Italy surrendered in early September, changing sides with the signing of the armistice of Cassibile.

The liberty ship SS John Harvey arrived at the southern Italian port of Bari in November, carrying 2000 M47A1 mustard gas bombs, each containing 60 to 70-pounds of sulfur mustard.

Bari was packed at the time, with ships waiting to be unloaded.  It would be days before stevedores could get to her. Captain John Knowles wanted to inform port authorities of his deadly cargo and request that it be unloaded immediately, but secrecy prevented him from doing so. As it was, John Harvey was still waiting to be unloaded, on December 2.

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Air raid on Bari, December 2, 1943

For Luftwaffe Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the traffic jam at Bari was an opportunity to slow the advance of the British 8th army on the Italian peninsula.

The “Little Pearl Harbor” began at 7:25PM, when 105 Junkers JU-88 bombers came out of the East.   The tactical surprise was complete, and German pilots were able to bomb the harbor with great accuracy. Two ammunition ships were first to explode, shattering windows 7 miles away. A bulk gasoline pipeline was severed, as a sheet of burning fuel spread across the harbor, igniting those ships left undamaged.

43 ships were sunk, damaged or destroyed including John Harvey, which erupted in a massive explosion.  Liquid sulfur mustard spilled into the water, as a cloud of toxic vapor blew across the port and into the city.

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Mustard gas is a cytotoxic agent, capable of entering the system via skin, eyes and respiratory tract and attacking every cell type with which it comes into contact. First comes the garlic smell, as the yellow-brown, heavier-than-air cloud creeps along the ground.  Contact first results in redness and itching, resulting 12-24 hours later in excruciating, untreatable blisters on exposed areas of the skin.  Sufferers are literally burned inside and out, as mucous membranes are stripped away from the eyes, nose and respiratory tract.

Death comes in days or weeks.  Survivors are likely to develop chronic respiratory disease and infections. DNA is altered, often resulting in certain cancers and birth defects. To this day there is no antidote.

A thousand or more died outright in the bombing.  643 military service personnel were hospitalized for gas symptoms.  83 of those were dead, by the end of the month.  The number of civilian casualties is unknown.  The whole episode remained shrouded in secrecy.

Afterward:
At the time, the nature of the chemical disaster at Bari was unknown.  Everyone with any knowledge of John Harvey’s secret cargo was killed in the explosion.  Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart Francis Alexander, an American physician from New Jersey, was sent by the Deputy Surgeon General of the US Army to find out what happened.

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Dr. Sidney Farber, regarded by many as the “Father of Modern Chemotherapy”

It was Dr. Alexander who figured out that mustard was the responsible agent, and from where it had come.   In the process of testing, Dr. Alexander noticed the unknown agent first went after rapidly dividing cells, such as white blood cells. Alexander wondered if it might be useful in going after other rapidly dividing cells, such as cancer.

Based on Dr. Alexander’s field work, Yale pharmacologists Louis Goodman and Alfred Gilman developed the first anti-cancer chemotherapy drug, in the treatment of lymphoma. 

Dr. Sidney Farber of Boston built on this work, producing remission in children with acute Leukemia using Aminopterin, an early precursor to Methotrexate, a chemotherapy drug still in use, today.

Writers have labeled SS John Harvey a Savior of Millions, due to the vessel’s role in the pioneering era of modern chemotherapy drugs.

The claim may be a bit of an exaggeration, but not entirely so.  The American Cancer Society estimates that there were 7,377,100 male cancer survivors in the United States as of January 1, 2016 and another 8,156,120, females.

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

December 1, 2013 The Sacred Soil of Flanders Fields

I’ve long believed that we can’t be participating citizens of a self-governing Republic, we can’t know where we want our nation to go, if we don’t understand where it’s been.  It’s one of the principle reasons for examining history.  It’s why I think something wonderful happened five years ago, and I don’t think many of us heard about it.

November 11, nineteen short days ago, marked the one-hundred year anniversary of the end of World War One.  Before they had numbers, this was “The Great War”.  The “War to end all Wars”.

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Passchendaele

There is barely a piece of 20th or 21st century history, which cannot be traced back to it.

International Communism was borne of the Great War, without which there would have been no cold war, no Korean War, no war in Vietnam. The killing fields of Cambodia would have remained mere rice fields.  The spiritual descendants of Chiang Kai-shek’s brand of capitalism would be running all of China, instead of only Taiwan.

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The current proportions of the Middle East arose from the Great War. While the region’s tribal alliances and religious strife is nothing new, those conditions would have taken a different form, had it not been for those boundaries.

World War II, an apocalypse which left more dead, wounded or missing than any conflict in world history, was little more than the Great War, part II. A Marshall of France, on reading the Versailles Treaty formally ending WWI, said “This isn’t peace. This is a cease-fire that will last for 20 years”.  He was off, by about 36 days.

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I’ve long believed that we can’t be participating citizens of a self-governing Republic, we can’t know where we want our nation to go, if we don’t understand where it’s been.  It’s one of the principle reasons for examining history.  It’s why I think something wonderful happened five years ago, and I don’t think many of us heard about it.

Over the summer of 2013, more than 1,000 British and Belgian schoolchildren visited seventy battlefields of the Great War.  Ypres.  Passchendaele.  Verdun.  The Somme. This was a singular event.  Never before had the Commonwealth War Graves Commission permitted the excavation of these battlefields.

All over Northern France and Belgium, the region known as “Flanders”.  There these children collected samples of the sacred soil of those fields of conflict.

The soil from those battlefields was placed in 70 WWI-style burlap sandbags, each stenciled with a red poppy, where it came from, and the dates.  Those sandbags began their journey with a solemn Armistice Day ceremony at the Menin Gate of Ypres, that memorial to the 56,395 British and Commonwealth soldiers who fought and died on the Ypres salient of the Great War, and whose bodies were never found or identified.

The sacred soil of Flanders Fields transported to London aboard the Belgian Navy frigate Louisa Marie, and installed with great care at Wellington Barracks, the central London home of the Grenadier Guards, Coldstream Guards and Scots Guards.

There the soil of the Great War would nourish and support a garden, inscribed with the words of Doctor John McCrae’s famous poem, “In Flanders Fields”.  Ready for the following year, a solemn remembrance of the centenary of the War to end all Wars.

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That day, December 1, 2013, was for the Flanders Fields Memorial Garden, the first full day of forever.  I cannot think of anything more fitting than that it was children, our future and posterity, who retrieved the sacred soil of Flanders and installed it in that garden.

It is now for that posterity to keep our history alive, and never to let it fade, into some sepia-toned and forgotten past.

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

November 11, 1918 The Eleventh Hour

The final surrender was signed at 5:10am on November 11, and back-timed to 5:00am Paris time, scheduled to go into effect later that morning. The 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month.

In an alternate history, the June 1914 assassination of the heir-apparent to the Habsburg Empire could have led to nothing more than a regional squabble.  A policing action, in the Balkans.

As it was, mutual distrust and entangling alliances combined with slavish obedience to mobilization timetables, to draw the Great Powers of Europe, into the vortex.  On August 3, the “War to End All Wars” exploded across the European continent.

Many of the soldiers who went off to war in those days, viewed the conflict as some kind of grand adventure. Many of them singing patriotic songs, the young men and boys of Russia, Germany, Austria and France stole last kisses from wives and sweethearts, and boarded their ships and trains.

Believing overwhelming manpower to be the key to victory, British Secretary of State for War Lord Horatio Kitchener recruited friends and neighbors by the tens of thousands into “Pal’s Battalions”, to fight for King and country.

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The signs could have been written in any number of languages, in the early phase of the war

Four years later, an entire generation had been chewed up and spit out, in pieces.

Any single day’s fighting during the great battles of 1916 produced more casualties than every European war of the preceding 100 years, civilian and military, combined.

6,503 Americans lost their lives during the savage, month-long battle for Iwo Jima, in 1945. The first day’s fighting during the 1916 Battle of the Somme, killed three times that number on the British and Commonwealth side, alone.

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Over 1.5 million shells were fired in the days leading to the battle of the Somme

Over 16 million were killed and another 20 million wounded, while vast stretches of the European countryside were literally, torn to pieces. Tens of thousands remain missing, to this day.

Had you found yourself in the mud and the blood, the rats and the lice of the trenches during the New Year of 1917-’18, you could have heard a plaintive refrain drifting across the barbed wire and frozen wastes of no man’s land, sung to the tune of ‘Auld Lang Syne”.

We’re here, because we’re here,
because we’re here, because we’re here,
we’re here, because we’re here,
because we’re here, because we’re here.

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Cher Ami

Those who fought the “Great War”, were not always human.  The carrier pigeon Cher Ami escaped a hail of bullets and returned twenty-five miles to her coop despite a sucking chest wound, the loss of an eye and a leg that hung on, by a single tendon.  The message she’d been given to carry, saved the lives of 190 men.

“Warrior” was the thoroughbred mount to General “Galloper” Jack Seely, arriving in August 1914 and serving four years “over there”. “The horse the Germans can’t kill” survived snipers, poison gas and shellfire to be twice buried alive in great explosions, only to return home to the Isle of Wight, and live to the ripe old age of 33.

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First division Rags

First Division Rags” ran through a torrent of shells, gassed and blinded in one eye, a shell fragment damaging his front paw, yet still, he got his message through.

Jackie the baboon lost a leg during heavy bombardment from German guns, while frantically building a protective rock wall around himself, and his comrades.

Tirpitz the German pig jumped clear of the sinking light cruiser SMS Dresden, to become mascot to the HMS Glasgow.

Sixteen million animals served on all sides and in all theaters of WW1:  from cats to canaries, to pigeons and mules, camels, donkeys and dogs.  As “dumb animals”, these were never given the choice to “volunteer”.  And yet they served, some nine million of them making the supreme sacrifice.

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British Army mules in the mud of the western front, 1918

In the end, starvation and malnutrition stalked the land at home as well as the front, with riots at home and mutiny in the trenches. The Russian Empire of the Czars had collapsed into a Bolshevik hellhole, never to return.  Nearly every combatant saw the disintegration of its domestic economy, or teetering on the brink.

A strange bugle call came out of the night of November 7, 1918. French soldiers of the 171st Régiment d’Infanterie, stationed near Haudroy, advanced into the fog and the darkness, expecting that they were about to be attacked. Instead, they were shocked to see the apparitions of three sedans, their sides displaying the German Imperial Eagle.

Imperial Germany, its army disintegrating in the field and threatened with revolution at home had sent a peace delegation, headed by the 43-year-old German politician Matthias Erzberger.

The delegation was escorted to the Compiegne Forest near Paris, to a conference room fashioned out of a railroad dining car. There they were met by a delegation headed by Ferdinand Foch, Marshall of France.

Adolf Hitler would gleefully accept French surrender in the same rail car, some twenty-two years later.

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The German delegation was shocked at the words that came out of Foch’s mouth. ‘Ask these gentlemen what they want,’ he said to his interpreter. Stunned, Erzberger responded. The German believed that they were there to discuss terms of an armistice. Foch dropped the hammer: “Tell these gentlemen that I have no proposals to make”.

Ferdinand Foch had seen his country destroyed by war, and had vowed “to pursue the Feldgrauen (Field Grays) with a sword at their backs”. He had no intention of letting up.

Marshall Foch now produced a list of thirty-four demands, each one a sledgehammer blow on the German delegation. Germany was to divest herself of all means of self-defense, from her high seas fleet to the last machine gun. She was to withdraw from all lands occupied since 1870. With the German population at home facing starvation, the allies were to confiscate 5,000 locomotives, 150,000 railroad cars, and 5,000 trucks.

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By this time, 2,250 were dying every day on the Western Front.  Foch informed Ertzberger that he had 72 hours in which to respond. “For God’s sake, Monsieur le Marechal”, responded the German, “do not wait for those 72 hours. Stop the hostilities this very day”.  Even so, the plea fell on deaf ears. Fighting would continue until the last minute, of the last day.

The German King, Kaiser Wilhelm, abdicated on the 10th, as riots broke out in the streets of Germany. The final surrender was signed at 5:10am on November 11, and back-timed to 5:00am Paris time, scheduled to go into effect later that morning. The 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month.

The order went out to that effect. The war would be over in hours, but there were no other instructions.

Some field commanders ordered their men to stand down. Why fight and die over ground they could walk over, in a few hours?

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The last six hours

Many continued the attack, believing that Germany had to be well and truly beaten. Others saw their last chance at glory or promotion. An artillery captain named Harry S Truman, kept his battery firing until only minutes before 11:00.

English teacher turned Major General Charles Summerall had a fondness for the turn of phrase. Ordering his subordinates across the Meuse River in those final hours, Summerall said “We are swinging the door by its hinges. It has got to move…Get into action and get across. I don’t expect to see any of you again…

No fewer than 320 Americans were killed in those final six hours, another 3,240 seriously wounded.

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Still smarting from the disastrous defeat at Mons back in 1914, British High Command was determined to take the place back, on the final day of the war. The British Empire lost more than 2,400 in those last 6 hours.

The French 80th Régiment d’Infanterie received two orders that morning – to launch an attack at 9:00, and cease-fire at 11:00. French losses for the final day amounted to 1,170. The already retreating Germans suffered 4,120.

One-hundred years ago today, all sides suffered over 11,000 dead, wounded, and missing in those final six hours. Some have estimated that more men died per hour after the signing of the armistice, than during the D-Day invasion, 26 years later.

Over in the Meuse-Argonne sector, Henry Gunther was “visibly angry”.   Perhaps this American grandson of German immigrants felt he had something to prove.  Anti-German bias had not reached levels of the next war, when President Roosevelt interned Americans of Japanese descent.  Yet, such bias was very real.  Gunther’s fiancé had already broken up with him, and he’d recently been busted in rank, after writing home complaining about conditions at the front.

Bayonet fixed, Gunther charged the enemy machine gun position, as German soldiers frantically waved and yelled for him, to go back. He got off a “shot or two”, before the five round burst tore into his head. Henry Nicholas John Gunther of Baltimore Maryland, was the last man to die in combat, in the Great War.  It was 10:59am.  The war would be over, in sixty seconds.

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After eight months on the front lines of France, Corporal Joe Rodier of Worcester Massachusetts, was jubilant.   “Another day of days“.   Rodier wrote in his diary.  “Armistice signed with Germany to take effect at 11 a.m. this date. Great manifestations. Town lighted up at night. Everybody drunk, even to the dog. Moonlight, cool night & not a shot heard“.

Matthias Erzberger was assassinated in 1921, for his role in the surrender. The “Stab in the Back” mythology destined to become Nazi propaganda, had already begun.

AEF Commander General John “Black Jack” Pershing believed the armistice to be a grave error. He believed that Germany had been defeated but not beaten, and that failure to smash the German homeland meant that the war would have to be fought, all over again. Ferdinand Foch agreed. On reading the Versailles treaty in 1919, Foch said “This isn’t peace! This is a truce that will last for 20 years”.

The man got it wrong, by 36 days.

Norman Francis Long

A personal note:

I am old enough at age sixty, to enjoy the memories of a five-year-old, fishing with his grandfather.

PFC Norman Francis Long was wounded during the Great War, a member of the United States Army, 33rd Pennsylvania Infantry.  He left us on December 18, 1963, only hours before his namesake and my brother Norman, was born.

A 1977 fire in the national archives, left us without the means to learn the details of his service.

My father’s father went to his final rest on Christmas eve of 1963, in Arlington National Cemetery.  Section 41, grave marker 2161.

Rest in peace, Grampa.  You left us, too soon.

 

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

October 20, 1937 Albert’s Swarm

Imagine a world with no grocery stores, and watching your food, All of it, disintegrate, before your eyes.

Between 1932 and 1943, children’s author Laura Ingalls Wilder published a series of eight novels, a fictionalized autobiography based on the childhood experiences of a 19th century pioneer and settler family. Third in the series is the best known, Little House on the Prairie, the subject for a television series running from 1974 to ’83.

In her fourth book, Wilder tells of the time when grasshoppers wiped out a much-anticipated and badly needed wheat crop, laying so many eggs that all hope was gone for the following year, as well.  On the Banks of Plum Creek, published  this day in 1937, told the story of “Pa” having to walk three-hundred miles east to find work on farms, which had escaped the plague of grasshoppers.

There are something like 11,000 species of grasshoppers in the world, the familiar, plant munching insects of our summer fields.  They are vegetarian creatures with polyphagous food habits, meaning they’ll eat just about anything, if the need arises.

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Rocky Mountain locust, Melanoplus spretus, photographed in 1870s, Minnesota

Usually a solitary creature, only a few species will become locusts, the “gregarious” phase of the insect’s life cycle characterized by swarming, migration, and accompanied by explosive growth in population.

The two years in Wilder’s story, 1874 – ’75, are among the worst swarms on record for the Rocky Mountain Locust, Melanoplus spretus.  

M. Spretus finds its home in the fertile valleys of the Rocky Mountains, but outbreaks of the insect have caused farm damage as far away as Maine in the period 1743–’56, and in Vermont during the administration of President George Washington.

When President Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis & Clark off on the Corps of Discovery expedition, vast herds of American bison stretched from horizon to horizon, as far as the eye could see. Historians estimate 30 to 60 million of the creatures, each weighing up to 2,000 pounds and measuring twelve-feet long. A minimum of sixty billion pounds of biomass, needing something to eat.

The western artist George Catlin estimated that, by 1841, some two to three million of the creatures had been slaughtered for their hides. Bison populations came under increasing pressure as natives acquired horses and guns, but the real slaughter began with the Indian wars and “hunting by rail”, when every dead buffalo was seen as a dead Indian.  By the late 1880s, only a few hundred individuals remained alive, in Yellowstone National Park.

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A mountain of bison skulls

With the bison gone and a new wave of vegetation, there arose a new and very different multitude, to feed on it.

During the 19th century, farming expanded westward into the grasshopper’s favored habitat, triggering massive outbreaks in their numbers.  Locust populations exploded to varying degrees in 1828, ’38, ’46, and ’55, affecting areas throughout the West and upper mid-west. Plagues visited Minnesota in 1856–’57 and again in the last year of the Civil War.  Nebraska suffered repeated infestations between 1856 and ’74.

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Illustration of egg-laying females, from 1877

Population blooms of two years are typical, as eggs laid in year one tend not to thrive as well as their parents.  At its height, farmers reported finding up to 150 egg cases per square inch, each containing 100 eggs or more.

In 1875, Doctor Albert L. Child of the U.S. Signal Corps watched a mile-high swarm of locusts pass overhead, for five days straight. Together with telegraph reports from neighboring towns, Child estimated the swarm to be 110 miles wide and 1,800 miles long. 198,000 square miles, one-third the size of Alaska, or the combined landmass of our thirteen smallest states.  It was a rolling flood, the size of California and Maine, put together.

The numbers are so far outside of human experience, they are hard to get your head around. For a little perspective, a million seconds is about twelve days. A Billion seconds ago, Jimmy Carter was President of the United States. A Trillion seconds ago, the oldest known clay object was fired to ceramic in the earliest oven.  It was 29,000, B.C. ”

Albert’s Swarm” was the largest such assembly of organisms in recorded history, estimated at 12½ Trillion individuals.

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It was a biological wildfire, a living blizzard that blotted out the sun, 12½ trillion insects each the size of a child’s finger, and each driven to eat its own weight.  Every day.  All in, Albert’s Swarm is estimated to have weighed 27½ million tons.

As the continuous track of a bulldozer moves ever forward, the leading edge of the swarm would alight to rest and eat, only to pick up the rear, a few days later.  In this manner, the swarm would cover ten miles or so, in a few weeks.

One farmer reported that the locusts seemed “like a great white cloud, like a snowstorm, blocking out the sun like vapor“.  Even the sound was horrific, rising to a scream and rolling over the land like some evil tide, the whirring and rasping cacophony of billions of mandibles borne aloft to eat, almost literally, everything in sight. Native populations could and did, move.  For prairie settler and pioneer families, home was on the farm.

Imagine a world with no grocery stores, and watching your food, All of it, disintegrate, before your eyes. Standing crops were the first to go, and then the root vegetables, potatoes, carrots and turnips, eaten out of the ground. Throw a blanket over your garden to protect even that little bit, and they would eat the blanket. Fence posts, saddles, nothing was off limits.  These creatures would eat the wool, right off of your sheep.  At its worst, the locust horde was known to eat the clothes off of people’s backs.

Trains were literally stopped in their tracks on uphill stretches of rail, unable to gain traction for the grease of millions of tiny bodies, ground beneath their wheels.

rocky-mountain-locust-1Farmers used gunpowder, fire and water, anything they could think of, to destroy what could only be seen as a plague of biblical proportion. They smeared them with “hopperdozers”, a plow-like device pulled behind horses, designed to knock jumping locusts into a pan of liquid poison or fuel, or even sucking them into vacuum cleaner-like contraptions.

Still, it was like trying to turn the tide, with a shot glass.  Missouri entomologist Charles Valentine Riley came up with a recipe to eat the damned things, seasoned with salt and pepper and pan-fried in butter. Some bought the recipe, but many felt they “would just as soon starve as eat those horrible creatures”.

In 1877, a Nebraska law required everyone between the ages of 16 and 60 to work at least two days eliminating locusts, or face a $10 fine. Missouri and other Great Plains states offered bounties: $1 a bushel for locusts gathered in March, 50¢ in April, 25¢ in May, and 10¢ in June.

map-from-the-locust-plagueAnd then the locust went away, and no one is entirely certain, why.  It is theorized that plowing, irrigation and harrowing destroyed up to 150 egg cases per square inch, in the years between swarms. Great Plains settlers, particularly those alongside the Mississippi river, appear to have disrupted the natural life cycle.  Winter crops, particularly wheat, enabled farmers to “beat them to the punch”, putting away stockpiles of food before the pestilence reached the swarming phase.

Today, the Rocky Mountain Locust is extinct.  Several grasshopper species swarm as locusts on every continent in the world, save for North America and Antarctica.   The last living specimen of the Rocky Mountain Locust was seen in Canada, in 1902.

Feature image, top of page:  A child swings a broomstick at a 4-mile wide swarms of locusts, plaguing Argentina.  H/T Business Insider