History

The Oberlin–Wellington Rescue

On Sept. 13, 1858, ex-slave John Price was accosted on the streets of Oberlin, Ohio, by a U.S. marshal, who took him to nearby Wellington, hoping to return him to Kentucky as a fugitive. Ohio was a free state, but the federal government had committed to helping slaveholders retrieve their runaway slaves.

When word of Price’s abduction spread, a large crowd of Oberlin townspeople surrounded the marshal’s hotel and demanded his release, eventually breaking in to return him to Oberlin. Thirty-seven of the rescuers were indicted, including black abolitionist Charles Langston, who made this impassioned speech at his trial:

But I stand up here to say, that if for doing what I did on that day at Wellington, I am to go to jail six months, and pay a fine of a thousand dollars, according to the Fugitive Slave Law, and such is the protection the laws of this country afford me, I must take upon my self the responsibility of self-protection; and when I come to be claimed by some perjured wretch as his slave, I shall never be taken into slavery. And as in that trying hour I would have others do to me, as I would call upon my friends to help me; as I would call upon you, your Honor, to help me; as I would call upon you [to the district attorney], to help me; and upon you [to Judge George Bliss], and upon you [to his counsel], so help me GOD! I stand here to say that I will do all I can, for any man thus seized and help, though the inevitable penalty of six months’ imprisonment and one thousand dollars’ fine for each offense hangs over me! We have a common humanity. You would do so; your manhood would require it; and no matter what the laws might be, you would honor yourself for doing it; your friends would honor you for doing it; your children to all generations would honor you for doing it; and every good and honest man would say, you had done right!

This was met with “great and prolonged applause, in spite of the efforts of the Court and the Marshal.” Langston was convicted but given a reduced sentence of 20 days. His eloquence was hereditary, apparently — his grandson was Langston Hughes.

Feeling Low

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In 1839, Louisville physician John Croghan opened a tuberculosis hospital inside Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave. Thinking that the steady temperature and humidity would help restore his patients, he built a few small buildings deep inside the cave, and a number of patients moved in for several months. A guide from the period reads:

Immediately beyond the Great Bend, a row of cabins, built for consumptive patients, commences. All of these are framed buildings, with the exception of two, which are of stone. They stand in line, from thirty to one hundred feet apart, exhibiting a picturesque, yet at the same time, a gloomy and mournful appearance. They are well furnished, and without question, would with good and comfortable accommodations, pure air and uniform temperature, cure the pulmonary consumption.

But morale in the sunless environment was low, and the close air made their condition worse. Patient Oliver Hazard Perry Anderson wrote, “I left the cave yesterday under the impression that I would be better out than in as my lungs were constantly irritated with smoke and my nose offended by a disagreeable effluvia, the necessary consequence of its being so tenanted without ventilation.”

Croghan ended the experiment after five months, and himself died of TB six years later.

(Thanks, Sandy.)

Sunset

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In May 1856, an African teenager named Nongqawuse had a vision: If her people killed all their cattle, she said, their long-dead ancestors would rise and drive out the European settlers.

Word spread quickly, and they did as she urged. In 10 months that followed, the Xhosa nation killed 400,000 cattle, driven by mounting rumor and revelation that great fields of corn would also spring into existence, that their ancient heroes would return to life, and that sickness and old age would disappear. In his Compendium of South African History and Geography of 1877, George McCall Theal records the climax:

At length the morning dawned of the day so long and so ardently looked for. All night long the Kaffirs had watched, with feeling stretched to the utmost tension of excitement, expecting to see two blood-red suns rise over the eastern hills, when the heavens would fall and crush the races they hated. Famished with hunger, half dying as they were, that night was yet a time of fierce, delirious joy. The morn, that a few short hours, slowly becoming minutes, would usher in, was to see all their sorrows ended, all their misery past. And so they waited and watched. It came, throwing a silver sheen upon the mountain peaks, and bathing hill-side and valley in a flood of light, as the ruler of day appeared. The hearts of the watchers sank within them; ‘What,’ said they, ‘will become of us if Mhlakaza’s predictions turn out untrue?’ It was the first time they had asked such a question, the dawn of doubt had never entered their thoughts till the dawn of the fatal day. But perhaps, after all, it might be midday that was meant, and when the shadows began to lengthen towards the east perhaps, thought they, the setting of the sun is the time. The sun went down behind clouds of crimson and gold, and the Amaxosa awoke to the reality of their dreadful position.

The ensuing famine killed 40,000 Xhosa. “Nongqause escaped, and is still living,” Theal wrote. “For prudential reasons she has ever since resided in the colony, where she preserves an unbroken silence concerning the deeds in which she played so prominent a part.”

Down and Out

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A letter received by the White House in February 1936:

Dear Mr. President:

I’m a boy of 12 years. I want to tell you about my family. My father hasn’t worked for 5 months. He went plenty times to relief, he filled out application. They won’t give us anything. I don’t know why. Please you do something. We haven’t paid 4 months rent. Everyday the landlord rings the door bell, we don’t open the door for him. We are afraid that will be put out, been put out before, and don’t want to happen again. We haven’t paid the gas bill, and the electric bill, haven’t paid grocery bill for 3 months. My brother goes to Lane Tech. High School. he’s eighteen years old, hasn’t gone to school for 2 weeks because he got no carfare. I have a sister she’s twenty years, she can’t find work. My father he
staying home. All the time he’s crying because he can’t find work. I told him why are you crying daddy, and daddy said why shouldn’t I cry when there is nothing in the house. I feel sorry for him. That night I couldn’t sleep. The next morning I wrote this letter to you in my room. Were American citizens and were born in Chicago, Ill. and I don’t know why they don’t help us Please answer right away because we need it. will starve Thank you.
God bless you.

In her “My Day” newspaper column on Dec. 30, 1935, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote: “I wonder if anyone else glories in cold and snow without, an open fire within, and the luxury of a tray of food all by one’s self in one’s own room?” A Columbus, Ind., woman responded, “I would give ten years of my life to be able to have the luxury of an open fire just one evening, as you write about in the Indianapolis Times.”

Top Dog

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George Washington retired as a lieutenant general and so was technically outranked by the four- and five-star generals of later wars.

Thinking this unseemly, Congress passed a resolution in 1976 arranging that Washington be promoted posthumously to “General of the Armies of the United States” and that no officer in the U.S. Army ever be considered to outrank him:

Whereas Lieutenant General George Washington of Virginia commanded our armies throughout and to the successful termination of our Revolutionary War; Whereas Lieutenant General George Washington presided over the convention that formulated our Constitution; Whereas Lieutenant General George Washington twice served as President of the United States of America; and Whereas it is considered fitting and proper that no officer of the United States Army should outrank Lieutenant General George Washington on the Army list; Now, therefore, be it

Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That

(a) for purposes of subsection (b) of this section only, the grade of General of the Armies of the United States is established, such grade to have rank and precedence over all other grades of the Army, past or present.
(b) The President is authorized and requested to appoint George Washington posthumously to the grade of General of the Armies of the United States, such appointment to take effect on July 4, 1976.

Gerald Ford signed the executive order that October.

Self-Service

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One day [Ben Franklin] came, half-frozen from his long ride, to a wayside inn. A great crowd was about the fire, and for some time Franklin stood shivering. Suddenly he turned to the hostler.

‘Hostler,’ said he in a loud voice, ‘have you any oysters?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Well, then,’ commanded Franklin in still louder tones, ‘give my horse a peck!’

‘What!’ exclaimed the hostler, ‘give your horse oysters!’

‘Yes,’ said Franklin, ‘give him a peck.’

The hostler, decidedly astonished, prepared the oysters and started for the stable. Everybody instantly arose from the fire-place and rushed out to see the marvellous horse eat oysters. Franklin took the most comfortable seat before the roaring blaze, and calmly awaited developments. Soon all returned, disappointed and shivering.

‘I gave him the oysters, sir,’ said the hostler, ‘but he wouldn’t eat them.’

‘Oh, well, then,’ answered Franklin nonchalantly, ‘I suppose I shall have to eat them myself. Suppose you try him with a peck of oats.’

— Carl Holliday, The Wit and Humor of Colonial Days, 1912

Ruler Measurement

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If Elizabeth II is still on the throne on Sept. 10, 2015, she’ll surpass Victoria as the longest-reigning monarch in British history.

Interestingly, no one knows precisely when she became queen. George VI died in his sleep sometime between 10:30 p.m. on Feb. 5, 1952, and 7:30 a.m. on Feb. 6. At that instant, Elizabeth acceded to the throne. At the time she was staying at the Treetops Hotel in Kenya; according to Ben Pimlott’s 1998 biography The Queen, at the moment of George’s death she was either asleep, eating breakfast, or watching the sun rise.

Mike Parker, a member of the royal party, had joined her at the top of the tree that morning to watch the dawn break over the jungle when he noticed an eagle hovering just over their heads and “for a moment, he was frightened that it would dive onto them.”

“I never thought about it until later,” he said, “but that was roughly the time when the king died.”

Holy War

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A letter from Pope Innocent IV to Güyük Khan, king of the Mongols, March 13, 1245:

Seeing that not only men but even irrational animals, nay, the very elements which go to make up the world machine, are united by a certain innate law after the manner of the celestial spirits, all of which God the Creator has divided into choirs in the enduring stability of peaceful order, it is not without cause that we are driven to express in strong terms our amazement that you, as we have heard, have invaded many countries belonging both to Christians and to others and are laying them waste in a horrible desolation, and with a fury still unabated you do not cease from stretching out your destroying hand to more distant lands, but, breaking the bond of natural ties, sparing neither sex nor age, you rage against all indiscriminately with the sword of chastisement.

We, therefore, following the example of the King of Peace, and desiring that all men should live united in concord in the fear of God, do admonish, beg and earnestly beseech all of you that for the future you desist entirely from assaults of this kind and especially from the persecution of Christians, and that after so many and such grievous offences you conciliate by a fitting penance the wrath of Divine Majesty, which without doubt you have seriously aroused by such provocation; nor should you be emboldened to commit further savagery by the fact that when the sword of your might has raged against other men Almighty God has up to the present allowed various nations to fall before your face; for sometimes He refrains from chastising the proud in this world for the moment, for this reason, that if they neglect to humble themselves of their own accord He may not only no longer put off the punishment of their wickedness in this life but may also take greater vengeance in the world to come.

On this account we have thought fit to send to you our beloved son and his companions the bearers of this letter, men remarkable for their religious spirit, comely in their virtue and gifted with a knowledge of Holy Scripture; receive them kindly and treat them with honour out of reverence for God, indeed as if receiving us in their persons, and deal honestly with them in those matters of which they will speak to you on our behalf, and when you have had profitable discussions with them concerning the aforesaid affairs, especially those pertaining to peace, make fully known to us through these same Friars what moved you to destroy other nations and what your intentions are for the future, furnishing them with a safe-conduct and other necessities on both their outward and return journey, so that they can safely make their way back to our presence when they wish.

Güyük wrote back:

By the power of the Eternal Heaven, we are the all-embracing Khan of all the Great Nations. It is our command:

This is a decree, sent to the great Pope that he may know and pay heed.

After holding counsel with the monarchs under your suzerainty, you have sent us an offer of subordination which we have accepted from the hands of your envoy.

If you should act up to your word, then you, the great Pope, should come in person with the monarchs to pay us homage and we should thereupon instruct you concerning the commands of the Yasak.

Furthermore, you have said it would be well for us to become Christians. You write to me in person about this matter, and have addressed to me a request. This, your request, we cannot understand.

Furthermore, you have written me these words: ‘You have attacked all the territories of the Magyars and other Christians, at which I am astonished. Tell me, what was their crime?’ These, your words, we likewise cannot understand. Chinggis Khan and Ogatai Khakan revealed the commands of Heaven. But those whom you name would not believe the commands of Heaven. Those of whom you speak showed themselves highly presumptuous and slew our envoys. Therefore, in accordance with the commands of the Eternal Heaven, the inhabitants of the aforesaid countries have been slain and annihilated. If not by the command of Heaven, how can anyone slay or conquer out of his own strength?

And when you say: ‘I am a Christian. I pray to God. I arraign and despise others,’ how do you know who is pleasing to God and to whom He allots His grace? How can you know it, that you speak such words?

Thanks to the power of the Eternal Heaven, all lands have been given to us from sunrise to sunset. How could anyone act other than in accordance with the commands of Heaven? Now your own upright heart must tell you: ‘We will become subject to you, and will place our powers at your disposal.’ You in person, at the head of the monarchs, all of you, without exception, must come to tender us service and pay us homage; then only will we recognize your submission. But if you do not obey the commands of Heaven, and run counter to our orders, we shall know that you are our foe.

That is what we have to tell you. If you fail to act in accordance therewith, how can we forsee what will happen to you? Heaven alone knows.

The two never met on the field of battle, so God was unable to make his wishes clearer.

(Thanks, Julian.)

A Lost Appeal

A letter from Virginia slave Sargry Brown to her husband Mores, Oct. 27, 1840:

Dear Husband —

this is the third letter that I have written to you, and have not received any from you; and dont no the reason that I have not received any from you. I think very hard of it. the trader has been here three times to Look at me. I wish that you would try to see if you can get any one to buy me up there. if you don’t come down here this Sunday, perhaps you wont see me any more. Give my love to them all, and tell them all that perhaps I shan’t see you any more. Give my love to your mother in particular, and to mamy wines, and to aunt betsy, and all the children; tell Jane and Mother they must come down a fortnight before christmas. I wish to see you all, but I expect I never shall see you all — never no more.

I remain your Dear and affectionate Wife,

Sargry Brown

It never reached him — it was discovered in the dead letter office in Washington, D.C.

Escort

Hit by antiaircraft fire over Bremen on Dec. 20, 1943, Air Force pilot Charlie Brown was separated from his formation. His B-17 had three damaged engines, a wounded crew, and malfunctioning electrical, hydraulic, and oxygen systems. Brown lost consciousness briefly and awoke to find himself shadowed by a German Messerschmitt that did not attack — as Brown flew slowly back to England, the enemy plane accompanied him as far as the North Sea, where the pilot saluted and let him go.

Brown returned to his air base in England, completed his tour, and returned to the United States. In the 1980s he began a search for the German pilot who had spared him, and eventually was contacted by Franz Stigler, who described the escort and the salute just as Brown had remembered them. Stigler was now living in Canada, and the two became close friends until their deaths in 2008.

Asked why he hadn’t fired on Brown’s shattered bomber, Stigler said, “I looked across at the tail gunner and all I could see was blood running down his gun barrels. I could see into Brown’s plane, see through the holes, see how they were all shot up. They were trying to help each other. To me, it was just like they were in a parachute. I saw them and I couldn’t shoot them down.”

He recalled the words of his commanding officer: “You follow the rules of war for you — not your enemy. You fight by rules to keep your humanity.”