History

Another Fad

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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

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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?”

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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

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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

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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.”

Witold’s Report

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As World War II engulfed Europe, the Allies learned of German atrocities at the Auschwitz concentration camp from a remarkable source: A Polish army captain named Witold Pilecki had volunteered to enter the camp in 1940 in order to gather intelligence and to organize its prisoners.

Using a false identity card, Pilecki let himself be captured during a Warsaw roundup and became inmate 4859 at Auschwitz. Over the next two years, as he witnessed the horrors unfolding there, Pilecki prepared the camp’s inmates for an uprising, distributed extra food, and even built a secret radio transmitter to communicate his findings, urging his superiors to attack and liberate the camp. His reports, which made their way to London, at first provoked disbelief:

“Sometimes a group of civilians who had been tortured and interrogated in the cellars and who had now been handed over to [SS officer Gerhard] Palitzsch for some fun would be led out. Palitzsch would order the girls to undress and run in a circle around the enclosed yard. Standing in the middle of the yard he would take his time picking a victim, then he would aim, shoot and kill them all one by one. None of them knew who would die next, or who would live for a few more moments, or who might be taken back for further interrogation. He — improved his aim.”

Another SS man, named Klehr, would kill prisoners with an injection of phenol directly into the heart. “One day, after taking care of everyone in the queue for an injection, he entered as usual the toilet where the dying häftlings were dumped to admire his handiwork for the day, when one of the ‘corpses’ came to life (there must have been an error and he had received too little phenol), stood up and started to stagger over the other corpses like a drunk towards Klehr saying: ‘Du hast mir zu wenig gegeben, gib mir noch etwas!’ [‘You didn’t give me enough, let me have a little more!’] Klehr went white, but not panicking, rushed at him — the executioner’s apparently cultured mask slipping — pulled out his pistol and without shooting, not wishing to make a noise, he finished off his victim by hitting him over the head with the butt.”

“What can humankind say now — that very humankind which wants to demonstrate cultural and personal progress and rank the 20th century much higher than centuries past?” Pilecki wrote. “Can we from the 20th century look our ancestors in the eye and … laughably … prove that we have attained a higher cultural plane?”

The hoped-for attack never came, and Pilecki finally escaped the camp in 1943, after 945 days. He went on to participate in the Warsaw Uprising, but in 1947 he was arrested by the Stalinist secret police, accused of spying, and executed. His final resting place is unknown. Poland’s communist regime suppressed his story until 1989, and his Auschwitz report was not published until 2000. But today he is regarded as a heroic figure in Poland — in 2006 he received the Order of the White Eagle, his country’s highest decoration.

Adrift

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En route to Senegal in 1816, the French frigate Méduse ran aground on a reef. The six boats were quickly filled, so those who remained lashed together a raft from topmasts, yards, and planks, and 147 people crowded onto a space 65 feet long and 23 wide, hoping to be towed to the African coast 50 miles away. (Seventeen crew and passengers remained aboard the Méduse.)

The raft sank 3 feet under their combined weight, and the tow line quickly parted. Rather than try to rescue them, the boats sailed on to the Senegalese capital. On the first night, 20 men drowned. On the second, some soldiers broke open a cask of wine and mutinied; in the ensuing melee, at least 60 were killed. By the following afternoon, the 67 who remained were gnawing sword belts to reduce their hunger. Eventually they descended on a corpse embedded among the logs of the raft. “We shudder with horror on finding ourselves under the necessity of recording that which we put into practice,” one wrote later.

On the fourth day, 48 remained, and that night a second mutiny killed 18 more. By the seventh day their numbers had dropped to 27 and they decided that their provisions would support only 15, so the 12 weakest were thrown to the sharks. The last 15 survived for 13 miserable days, living on garlic cloves, a lemon, and occasionally a flying fish. They were finally spotted by the brig Argus, a moment immortalized by Théodore Géricault (below).

Of the 17 who had remained aboard the Méduse, three survived. One told his story to a survivor of the raft journey, who wrote, “They lived in separate corners of the wreck, which they never quitted but to look for food, and this latterly consisted only of tallow and a little bacon. If, on these occasions, they accidentally met, they used to run at each other with drawn knives.”

For all this, the captain of the Méduse was imprisoned for only three years, an occasion for lasting controversy in French politics. “It is more difficult to escape from the injustice of man,” wrote one commentator, “than the fury of the sea.”

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The Leaning Virgin

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On Jan. 15, 1915, a shell hit the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Brebières in Albert, France. Its crowning statue of Mary and the infant Jesus was flung forward and teetered over the building’s facade, but it did not fall.

“We went through the place today where the Virgin Statue at the top of the Church was hit by a shell in January,” wrote chaplain Rupert Edward Inglis to his wife in October. “The statue was knocked over, but has never fallen, I sent you a picture of it. It really is a wonderful sight. It is incomprehensible how it can have stayed there, but I think it is now lower than when the photograph was taken, and no doubt will come down with the next gale.”

But it didn’t. The virgin remained suspended over Albert for three years, during which British, French, and German forces all invented legends for it, commonly saying that the war would end when it finally fell. They were nearly right: The statue finally came down in April 1918, seven months before the armistice.

The basilica has since been rebuilt, and it bears a replica of the original statue.

Welcome to America

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Is Ellis Island in New York or New Jersey? Surprisingly, it’s in both. Under a 1934 compact, New York had jurisdiction over the original 3-acre Army fort, but the 24 acres of landfill that have since been added are part of New Jersey. The Supreme Court essentially upheld this arrangement in a 1998 ruling.

“New York still collects sales tax from concessions within the donut hole,” writes geographer Mark Monmonier, “while New Jersey taxes purchases elsewhere on the site.”

Early Warning

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Published in 1915, Cleveland Moffett’s The Conquest of America imagined a German assault on the United States in 1921. Moffett had intended the novel as a warning of the importance of military preparedness, and it was quickly forgotten, but one passage would come to take on an eerie significance — an attack on Manhattan:

‘Ah! So!’ said von Hindenburg, and he glanced at a gun crew who were loading a half-ton projectile into an 11.1-inch siege-gun that stood on the pavement. ‘Which is the Woolworth Building?’ he asked, pointing across the river.

‘The tallest one, Excellency — the one with the Gothic lines and gilded cornices,’ replied one of his officers.

‘Ah, yes, of course. I recognise it from the pictures. It’s beautiful. Gentlemen,’ — he addressed the American officers, — ‘I am offering twenty-dollar gold pieces to this gun crew if they bring down that tower with a single shot. Now, then, careful! …

‘Ready!’

We covered our ears as the shot crashed forth, and a moment later the most costly and graceful tower in the world seemed to stagger on its base. Then, as the thousand-pound shell, striking at the twenty-seventh story, exploded deep inside, clouds of yellow smoke poured out through the crumbling walls, and the huge length of twenty-four stories above the jagged wound swayed slowly toward the east, and fell as one piece, flinging its thousands of tons of stone and steel straight across the width of Broadway, and down upon the grimy old Post Office Building opposite.

‘Sehr gut!’ nodded von Hindenburg. ‘It’s amusing to see them fall. Suppose we try another? What’s that one on the left?’

‘The Singer Building, Excellency,’ answered the officer.

‘Good! Are you ready?’

Then the tragedy was repeated, and six hundred more were added to the death toll, as the great tower crumbled to earth.

‘Now, gentlemen,’ — von Hindenburg turned again to the American officers with a tiger gleam in his eyes, — ‘you see what we have done with two shots to two of your tallest and finest buildings. At this time to-morrow, with God’s help, we shall have a dozen guns along this bank of the river, ready for whatever may be necessary.’

In the end J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and John D. Rockefeller are held hostage and ordered to raise a billion dollars to indemnify the city. “The Conquest of America is as full of thrills as the most excitable and fearful patriot need ask,” raved the Independent. “If all the prominent Americans named in the tale, as hostages or otherwise, get about the business of preparedness, this invasion will never be.”