Sans Merci

New Zealander Nancy Wake fought fearlessly for the Allies in World War II, first for the French resistance and later as a spy for Britain’s Special Operations Executive.

Parachuted into the Auvergne in April 1944, she was hanging from a tree when a resistance fighter told her, “I hope that all the trees in France bear such beautiful fruit this year.”

She said, “Don’t give me that French shit.”

(Thanks, Vinny.)


In 1842, Kentucky slave Henry Bibb made his way to Canada and became an abolitionist. While attending a convention in Detroit, he sent pamphlets to a number of Southern slaveholders, including his former master, William Gatewood. In 1844 he was surprised to receive this letter:

Bedford, Thimble County, Ky.
Mr. H. Bibb.
Dear Sir:– After my respects to you and yours &c., I received a small book which you sent to me that I peroseed and found it was sent by H. Bibb. I am a stranger in Detroit and know no man there without it is Walton H. Bibb if this be the man please to write to me and tell me all about that place and the people I will tell you the news here as well as I can your mother is still living here and she is well the people are generally well in this cuntry times are dull and produce low give my compliments to King, Jack, and all my friends in that cuntry I read that book you sent me and think it will do very well — George is sold, I do not know any thing about him I have nothing more at present, but remain yours &c
February 9th, 1844
P.S. You will please to answer this letter.

He replied:

Dear Sir:– I am happy to inform you that you are not mistaken in the man whom you sold as property, and received pay for as such. But I thank God that I am not property now, but am regarded as a man like yourself, and although I live far north, I am enjoying a comfortable living by my own industry. If you should ever chance to be traveling this way, and will call on me, I will use you better than you did me while you held me as a slave. Think not that I have any malice against you, for the cruel treatment which you inflicted on me while I was in your power. As it was the custom of your country, to treat your fellow men as you did me and my little family, I can freely forgive you.

I wish to be remembered in love to my aged mother, and friends; please tell her that if we should never meet again in this life, my prayer shall be to God that we may meet in Heaven, where parting shall be no more.

You wish to be remembered to King and Jack. I am pleased, sir, to inform you that they are both here, well, and doing well. They are both living in Canada West. They are now the owners of better farms than the men are who once owned them.

You may perhaps think hard of us for running away from slavery, but as to myself, I have but one apology to make for it, which is this: I have only to regret that I did not start at an earlier period. I might have been free long before I was. But you had it in your power to have kept me there much longer than you did. I think it is very probable that I should have been a toiling slave on your plantation today, if you had treated me differently.

To be compelled to stand by and see you whip and slash my wife without mercy, when I could afford her no protection, not even by offering myself to suffer the lash in her place, was more than I felt it to be the duty of a slave husband to endure, while the way was open to Canada. My infant child was also frequently flogged by Mrs. Gatewood, for crying, until its skin was bruised literally purple. This kind of treatment was what drove me from home and family, to seek a better home for them. But I am willing to forget the past. I should be pleased to hear from you again, on the reception of this, and should also be very happy to correspond with you often, if it should be agreeable to yourself. I subscribe myself a friend to the oppressed, and Liberty forever.

A Muddy Grave

Memories of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916:

“Before the bombardment started and while everything was peaceful, I could see through my periscope a young Englishman playing his trumpet every evening. We used to wait for this hour but suddenly there was nothing to be heard and we all hoped that nothing had happened to him.” — Feldwebel Karl Stumpf, 169th Regiment

“As the gun-fire died away I saw an infantryman climb onto the parapet into No Man’s Land, beckoning others to follow. As he did so he kicked off a football; a good kick, the ball rose and travelled well towards the German line. That seemed to be the signal to advance.” — Private L.S. Price, 8th Royal Sussex

“For some reason nothing seemed to happen to us at first; we strolled along as though walking in a park. Then, suddenly, we were in the midst of a storm of machine-gun bullets and I saw men beginning to twirl round and fall in all kinds of curious ways as they were hit — quite unlike the way actors do it in films.” — Private W. Slater, 2nd Bradford Pals

“When the English started advancing we were very worried; they looked as though they must overrun our trenches. We were very surprised to see them walking, we had never seen that before. I could see them everywhere; there were hundreds. The officers were in front. I noticed one of them walking calmly, carrying a walking stick. When we started firing, we just had to load and reload. They went down in their hundreds. You didn’t have to aim, we just fired into them. If only they had run, they would have overwhelmed us.” — Musketier Karl Blenk, 169th Regiment

“Imagine stumbling over a ploughed field in a thunderstorm, the incessant roar of the guns and flashes as the shells exploded. Multiply all this and you have some idea of the Hell into which we were heading. To me it seemed a hundred times worse than any storm.” — Private E. Houston, Public Schools Battalion

“The sound was different, not only in magnitude but in quality, from anything known to me. It was not a succession of explosions or a continuous roar; I, at least, never heard either a gun or a bursting shell. It was not a noise, it was a symphony. And it did not move. It hung over us. It seemed as though the air were full of vast and agonised passion, bursting now with groans and sighs, now into shrill screaming and pitiful whimpering, shuddering beneath terrible blows, torn by unearthly whips, vibrating with the solemn pulses of enormous wings. And the supernatural tumult did not pass in this direction or in that. It did not begin, intensify, decline and end. It was poised in the air, a stationary panorama of sound, a condition of the atmosphere, not the creation of man.” — Anonymous NCO, 22nd Manchester Rifles

It would become the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army, with 57,470 casualties. “From that moment all my religion died,” recalled Private C. Bartram of the 94th Trench Mortar Battery. “All my teaching and beliefs in God had left me, never to return.”

Big Shoulders

Chicago faced a public health crisis in the 1850s as poor drainage led to outbreaks of cholera and typhoid fever. So they raised the town. Large sections of the central city were raised 6 feet on jackscrews while masons installed new foundations beneath them and installed pipes for sewage, water, and gas.

Surprisingly, this went pretty well. “An entire block on Lake street, between Clark and La Salle streets, on the north side of the street, was raised at one time, business in the various stores and offices proceeding as usual,” wrote historian Josiah Seymour Currey. “The facility with which buildings, light and heavy, were raised to the grade established became the talk of the country, and the letters of travelers and correspondents for newspapers abound with reference to the work going on and the odd sensations of going up and down as one passed along the streets.”

One oddity: The streets were raised before the sidewalks, so “until all the sidewalks were raised to grade, people had to go up and down stairs from four to half a dozen steps two or three times in passing a single block,” recalled Chicago Tribune publisher William Bross. “A Buffalo paper got off a note on us to the effect that one of her citizens going along the street was seen to run up and down every pair of cellar stairs he could find. A friend asking after his sanity, was told that the walkist was all right, but that he had been in Chicago a week, and, in traveling our streets, had got so accustomed to going up and down stairs that he got the springhalt and could not help it.”

Blood Sports

Two bygone amusements that we’re well rid of:

In fox tossing, popular in the 17th century, foxes would be released into an arena in which slings were laid between pairs of participants. If a fox crossed a sling, they would fling it into the air, usually killing or severely injuring it. The highest toss won the contest.

In goose pulling, a live goose was tied by its feet to a rope stretched over a course, and each competitor would ride under it at full speed and try to pull off its head.

“This pastime is not one to be commended on the score of humanity,” noted Baily’s Magazine of Sports & Pastimes in 1902, “but it did something to test horsemanship; the goose we may be sure did not hang in a state of resigned quietude, and if the horseman had not a good seat he ran an excellent chance of coming a heavy cropper in his attempt to seize the writhing neck.”

Another Fad

Before the existence of the association of clubs (1857), and when [baseball] was to be learned only from witnessing the practice and match games at Hoboken, the prejudice which existed against the game could scarcely be imagined. The favor with which it was regarded may be judged from the observation used by an accidental witness of a game who, after looking for a while, with unfeigned astonishment exclaimed: ‘I can’t see what fun such great, big men can find in hitting a little ball with a big stick and run away like mad, and kick at a sand bag.’

DeWitt Baseball Guide, 1868

A Small Start

Europe once had a state whose official language was Esperanto. When boundaries were redrawn after the Napoleonic wars, a dispute arose regarding the border between Prussia and the Netherlands, and a sliver of 3.44 square kilometers became a no man’s land known as Neutral Moresnet. In 1908, German immigrant Wilhelm Molly proposed making the territory into the world’s first Esperanto-speaking state. They rechristened the area Amikejo (literally, “friend-place”) and adopted a national anthem, and the International Esperantist Congress even decided to move its headquarters from The Hague to the new “world capital” of the international language.

But it wasn’t to be. Germany overran the tiny territory as World War I broke out, and it was formally annexed by Belgium in the Treaty of Versailles.

Somewhat related: In 2004 deaf journalist Marvin T. Miller proposed building the “world’s first sign language town,” a community whose common languages would be American Sign Language and written English. Miller chose a site in South Dakota and named it Laurent, after Laurent Clerc, who co-founded the country’s first school for the deaf. But the project appears to have stalled due to lack of funding.

“Can This Be Hell?”

Of the 45,000 Union prisoners sent to the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp at Andersonville, Ga., 12,913 died, the victims of starvation, disease, exposure, and abusive guards. Excerpts from the diary of 1st Sgt. John L. Ransom of the Ninth Michigan Cavalry, who was captured in November 1863:

March 14. — Arrived at our destination at last and a dismal hole it is, too. We got off the cars at two o’clock this morning in a cold rain, and were marched into our pen between a strong guard carrying lighted pitch pine knots to prevent our crawling off in the dark. I could hardly walk have been cramped up so long, and feel as if I was a hundred years old. Have stood up ever since we came from the cars, and shivering with the cold. The rain has wet us to the skin and we are worn out and miserable. Nothing to eat to-day, and another dismal night just setting in.

May 19. — Nearly twenty thousand men confined here now. New ones coming every day. Rations very small and very poor. The meal that the bread is made out of is ground, seemingly, cob and all, and it scourges the men fearfully. Things getting continually worse. Hundreds of cases of dropsy. Men puff out of human shape and are perfectly horrible to look at. Philo Lewis died today. Could not have weighed at the time of his death more than ninety pounds, and was originally a large man, weighing not less than one hundred and seventy. Jack Walker, of the 9th Mich. Cavalry, has received the appointment to assist in carrying out the dead, for which service he receives an extra ration of corn bread.

June 8. — More new prisoners. There are now over 23,000 confined here, and the death rate 100 to 130 per day, and I believe more than that. Rations worse.

June 13. — … To-day saw a man with a bullet hole in his head over an inch deep, and you could look down in it and see maggots squirming around at the bottom. Such things are terrible, but of common occurrence. Andersonville seems to be head-quarters for all the little pests that ever originated — flies by the thousand millions.

June 28. — It seems to me as if three times as many as ever before are now going off, still I am told that about one hundred and thirty die per day. The reason it seems worse, is because no sick are being taken out now, and they all die here instead of at the hospital. Can see the dead wagon loaded up with twenty or thirty bodies at a time, two lengths, just like four foot wood is loaded on to a wagon at the North, and away they go to the grave yard on a trot. Perhaps one or two will fall off and get run over. No attention paid to that; they are picked up on the road back after more. Was ever before in this world anything so terrible happening? Many entirely naked.

July 6. — Boiling hot, camp reeking with filth, and no sanitary privileges; men dying off over a hundred and forty per day. Stockade enlarged, taking in eight or ten more acres, giving us more room, and stumps to dig up for wood to cook with. …

July 19. — There is no such thing as delicacy here. Nine out of ten would as soon eat with a corpse for a table as any other way. In the middle of last night I was awakened by being kicked by a dying man. He was soon dead. In his struggles he had floundered clear into our bed. Got up and moved the body off a few feet, and again went to sleep to dream of the hideous sights. I can never get used to it as some do. Often wake most scared to death, and shuddering from head to foot. Almost dread to go to sleep in this account. I am getting worse and worse, and prison ditto.

In September Ransom was removed to a Marine hospital in Savannah, “very sick but by no means dead yet.” On July 10, in the worst of his extremity, he had written, “While I have no reason or desire to swear, I certainly cannot do this prison justice. It’s too stupendous an undertaking. Only those who are here will ever know what Andersonville is.”

Colliery Reports

From the report of a commission of inquiry into the condition of young persons employed in coal mines, reported in Facts and Figures, May 2, 1842:

“The stunted stature of the collier children arises, in the thin coal districts, from the height of the passages they have to traverse, being frequently not above 30 inches in height; and along these, children of both sexes either push or draw little waggons or corves, loaded with coals, weighing from two to three cwt. [hundredweight], and running usually on rough and uneven rails, but sometimes drawn as sledges. In the very thin pits they are harnessed to the corves by means of a strap round the waist, and a chain passing through the legs; thus they go along on all fours, like animals; and this work is done by girls in trowsers, as well as boys, in the thin coal districts alike of Yorkshire, Lancashire, and the east of Scotland.”

  • Patience Kershaw, 17, Mr. Joseph Stock’s Booth Town Pit, Halifax: “I hurry in the clothes I have now got on, trousers and ragged jacket; the bald place upon my head is made by thrusting the corves; my legs have never swelled, but sisters’ did when they went to mill; I hurry the corves a mile and more under ground and back; they weigh three cwt.; I hurry eleven a-day; I wear a belt and chain at the workings to get the corves out; the getters that I work for are naked except their caps; they pull off all their clothes; I see them at work when I go up; sometimes they beat me, if I am not quick enough, with their hands; they strike me upon my back; the boys take liberties with me sometimes, they pull me about; I am the only girl in the pit; there are about twenty boys and fifteen men; all the men are naked; I would rather work in mill than in coal pit.”
  • Margaret Hipps, 17, putter, Stoney Rigg Colliery, Stirlingshire: “My employment, after reaching the wall-face, is to fill a bagie, or slype, with 2-1/2 to 3 cwt. of coal. I then hook it on my chain, and drag it through the seam, which is 26 to 28 inches high, till I get to the main-road — a good distance, probably 200 to 400 yards. The pavement I drag over is wet, and I am obliged at all times to crawl on hands and feet with my bagie hung to the chain and ropes. It is sad sweating and sore fatiguing work, and frequently maims the women.”
  • Betty Harris, 37, drawer in a coal-pit, Little Bolton, Lancashire: “I have a belt round my waist, and a chain passing between my legs, and I go on my hands and feet. The road is very steep, and we have to hold by a rope, and, when there is no rope, by anything we can catch hold of. There are six women and about six boys and girls in the pit I work in: it is very hard work for a woman. The pit is very wet where I work, and the water comes over our clog-tops always, and I have seen it up to my thighs. I am not so strong as I was, and I cannot stand my work so well as I used to do. I have drawn till I have had the skin off me; the belt and chain is worse when we are in the family-way. My feller [husband] has beaten me many a time for not being ready. I have known many a man beat his drawer.”

Of Hipps’ testimony, a subcommissioner notes: “It is almost incredible that human beings can submit to such employment, crawling on hands and knees, harnessed like horses, over soft slushy floors, more difficult than dragging the same weights through our lowest common-sewers, and more difficult in consequence of the inclination, which is frequently one in three to one in six.”

The Bravest Man

In recalling the Battle of Little Bighorn during an 1877 interview, Sioux chief Red Horse said:

Among the soldiers was an officer who rode a horse with four white feet. The Sioux have for a long time fought many brave men of different people, but the Sioux say this officer was the bravest man they had ever fought. I don’t know whether this was General Custer or not. Many of the Sioux men that I hear talking tell me it was. I saw this officer in the fight many times, but did not see his body. It has been told me that he was killed by a Santee Indian, who took his horse. This officer wore a large-brimmed hat and a deerskin coat. This officer saved the lives of many soldiers by turning his horse and covering the retreat. Sioux say this officer was the bravest man they ever fought.

Who was this? In September 1898, McClure’s Magazine published an interview with Cheyenne chief Two Moon:

One man rides up and down the line — all the time shouting. He rode a sorrel horse with white face and white forelegs. I don’t know who he was. He was a brave man. … [A]nd then the five horsemen and the bunch of men, may be so forty, started toward the river. The man on the sorrel horse led them, shouting all the time. He wore a buckskin shirt, and had long black hair and mustache. He fought hard with a big knife. His men were all covered with white dust. I couldn’t tell whether they were officers or not.

The valiant man appears not to have been Custer himself, who died higher on the ridge. In the aftermath, Two Moon said, “Most of them were left just where they fell. We came to the man with big mustache; he lay down the hills towards the river. The Indians did not take his buckskin shirt. The Sioux said [mistaking him for Custer], ‘That is a big chief. That is Long Hair.’ I don’t know. I had never seen him. The man on the white-faced horse was the bravest man.”