Letter to the Times from the Dean of Canterbury, Feb. 5, 1970:
A few days ago I received a communication addressed to T.A. Becket, Esq., care of The Dean of Canterbury. This surely must be a record in postal delays.
Ian H. White-Thomson
Abraham Lincoln’s former law partner, William Henry Herndon, published a biography of the president in 1889. While gathering material for the project, he received this letter from a colleague:
One morning, not long before Lincoln’s nomination — a year perhaps — I was in your office and heard the following: Mr. Lincoln, seated at the baize-covered table in the center of the office, listened attentively to a man who talked earnestly and in a low tone. After being thus engaged for some time Lincoln at length broke in, and I shall never forget his reply. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘we can doubtless gain your case for you; we can set a whole neighborhood at loggerheads; we can distress a widowed mother and her six fatherless children and thereby get for you six hundred dollars to which you seem to have a legal claim, but which rightfully belongs, it appears to me, as much to the woman and her children as it does to you. You must remember that some things legally right are not morally right. We shall not take your case, but will give you a little advice for which we will charge you nothing. You seem to be a sprightly, energetic man; we would advise you to try your hand at making six hundred dollars in some other way.’
One day I was out milking the cows. Mr. Dave come down into the field, and he had a paper in his hand. ‘Listen to me, Tom,’ he said, ‘listen to what I reads you.’ And he read from a paper all about how I was free. You can’t tell how I felt. ‘You’re jokin’ me.’ I says. ‘No, I ain’t,’ says he. ‘You’re free.’ ‘No,’ says I, ‘it’s a joke.’ ‘No,’ says he, ‘it’s a law that I got to read this paper to you. Now listen while I read it again.’
But still I wouldn’t believe him. ‘Just go up to the house,’ says he, ‘and ask Mrs. Robinson. She’ll tell you.’ So I went. ‘It’s a joke,’ I says to her. ‘Did you ever know your master to tell you a lie?’ she says. ‘No,’ says I, ‘I ain’t.’ ‘Well,’ she says, ‘the war’s over and you’re free.’
By that time I thought maybe she was telling me what was right. ‘Miss Robinson,’ says I, ‘can I go over to see the Smiths?’ — they was a colored family that lived nearby. ‘Don’t you understand,’ says she, ‘you’re free. You don’t have to ask me what you can do. Run along, child.’
And so I went. And do you know why I was a-going? I wanted to find out if they was free too. I just couldn’t take it all in. I couldn’t believe we was all free alike.
Was I happy? Law, miss. You can take anything. No matter how good you treat it — it wants to be free. You can treat it good and feed it good and give it everything it seems to want — but if you open the cage — it’s happy.
– Former slave Tom Robinson, 88, of Hot Springs, Ark., interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project for the Slave Narrative Collection of 1936-38
Three nightmare glimpses of World War I:
The first experience I had of rotting bodies had been at Serre, where, as a battalion, we dealt with the best part of a thousand dead who came to pieces in our hands. As you lifted a body by its arms and legs they detached themselves from the torso, and this was not the worst thing. Each body was covered inches deep with a black fur of flies which flew up into your face, into your mouth, eyes and nostrils, as you approached. The bodies crawled with maggots. … We stopped every now and then to vomit. … The bodies had the consistency of Camembert cheese. I once fell and put my hand through the belly of a man. It was days before I got the smell out of my hands.
– British lieutenant Stuart Cloete on a burial party after the Somme, from his autobiography A Victorian Son
At the Epéhy crossroads, we found a huge cat squatting on the chest of a dead German, eating his face. It made us sick to see it, and I sent two men to chase it away. As they approached it sprang snarling at them, but they beat it down with their rifles and drove it into the ruined houses. Then we covered the body with a sack, and went on … [Later] we saw the sack we had thrown over the dead Jerry heaving up and down, and there was pretty pussy, still rending and tearing the body; so we shot it and continued our march to Longavesnes.
– From the diary of British lieutenant Edwin Vaughan of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, April 1917
One evening, whilst on patrol, Jacques saw some rats running from under the dead men’s greatcoats, enormous rats, fat with human flesh. His heart pounding, he edged towards one of the bodies. Its helmet had rolled off. The man displayed a grimacing face, stripped of flesh; the skull bare, the eyes devoured. A set of false teeth slid down on to his rotting jacket, and from the yawning mouth leapt an unspeakably foul beast.
– A French soldier, quoted in John Ellis’ Eye-Deep in Hell, 1989
In 1900, while a senior in high school, Harry Truman was struck by this passage in Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall”:
For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight dropping down with costly bales;
Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain’d a ghastly dew
From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue;
Far along the world-wide whisper of the south-wind rushing warm,
With the standards of the peoples plunging thro’ the thunder-storm;
Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer, and the battle-flags were furl’d
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.
There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law.
It describes an aerial war of the future. Tennyson had written it in 1835, long before the advent of modern aircraft, but it assumed an eerie significance in 1940, when Germany undertook a sustained assault on the United Kingdom.
“This is a complete prophecy, if not virtually a description, of the Battle of Britain,” wrote Sir Douglas Bader, who commanded a Royal Air Force squadron during the fighting. “‘… the heavens fill with shouting’ refers to radio-telephonic communications between pilots. It is significant when one reads such prophecies (not related to the New Testament) after the event and finds them so accurate.” Winston Churchill called the poem “the most wonderful of modern prophecies.”
Truman, who by then was a senator from Missouri, had not forgotten it either: After discovering the poem in that high school class, he had copied out the passage and carried it ever since in his wallet.
When Germany was blockaded by the British in 1916, naval officer Felix von Luckner hit on a dashing solution: He outfitted a three-masted sailing ship, the Seeadler, with hidden guns and engines and crept through the cordon posing as a humble Norwegian wood carrier. Once safely at sea he spent the ensuing year as a sort of humanitarian pirate, sinking one merchant ship after another while imprisoning their crews and leading the British and American navies on a merry chase. Over 225 days he captured some 16 ships and 300 prisoners with nearly no loss of life (one British sailor was killed by a ruptured steam pipe). The Seeadler was finally wrecked on a reef in August 1917, and Von Luckner spent the rest of the war in a New Zealand prisoner-of-war camp.
In the interval he returned a measure of romance to naval warfare, giving his “guests” run of the ship and even permitting captured cooks to prepare meals in their native cuisines. “When he discovered, after sinking the [Canadian schooner] Percy, that he had interrupted a honeymoon, he was most contrite and gave the Kohlers a cabin to themselves, remarking that he was desolated at having had to sink their ship,” writes John Philips Cranwell in Spoilers of the Sea. “Captain Kohler’s remarks on the subject are not, unfortunately, available.”
The U.S. government did not issue paper money until 1861. Until then, private banks printed their own currency under charters to the states.
As a result, this $5 bill featuring Santa Claus was legal tender in the 1850s. It was issued by the Howard Banking Company of Boston.
A number of banks issued Santa-themed money in the same period — the most natural being the St. Nicholas Bank of New York City.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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! …
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.”
In 1763 an anonymous Londoner published The Reign of George VI, 1900-1925, a forecast of the remote 20th century. Among other things, the author predicted that George’s greatest military victory would come before the gates of Vienna in May 1918, the actual date of Germany’s Spring Offensive of World War I:
Peter immediately raised the siege, and, drawing up his forces in the plains of Vienna, prepared to fight the King of England, who was also engaged in the same employment. The Russian army had a superiority of above sixty thousand men, consequently their numbers were two to one; but no dangers could depress the heart of George. Having, with moving batteries, secured the rear and wings of his army from being surrounded, he placed his artillery in the most advantageous manner; and dividing his front into two lines, at the head of the first he began the attack, after his artillery had played on the enemy an hour, with great success. The Russian infantry, animated by the presence of their Czar, under whom they had so often conquered, repulsed him with some loss. The King hereupon made a second and still more furious attack, but yet without success. At that critical moment the Duke of Devonshire, who commanded his left wing, sent for immediate assistance, as he was hard pressed by the superior numbers of the enemy. George flew like lightning to his weakened troops, and placing himself at the head of six regiments of dragoons, made such a furious attack on the eager Russians as threw them into disorder, and following his advantage, pushed them with great success.
Properly speaking this isn’t science fiction, as the author envisions no technological advances: Sail warships still fight naval battles; East Indiamen travel to India and Indonesia; and European nations communicate by roads and trade using river barges.
But here’s an interesting detail: “By the year 1920 there were 11,000,000 of souls in the British-American dominions [of North America]: they were in possession of perhaps the finest country in the world, and yet had never made the least attempt to shake off the authority of Great-Britain.” Writing in 1763, the author had considered the possibility of a revolt in the colonies, but rejected it: “The constitutions of the several divisions of this vast monarchy were admirably designed to keep the whole in continual dependence on the mother country. … The multiplicity of governments which prevailed over the whole country rendered the execution of such a scheme [combined rebellion] absolutely impossible.”
A successful concert with mouth-organs, combs, and tissue-paper and penny whistles was given by the [British] Guards in the front-line trenches near Loos. They played old English melodies, harmonized with great emotion and technical skill. It attracted an unexpected audience. The Germans crowded into their front line — not far away — and applauded each number. Presently, in good English, a German voice shouted across:
‘Play “Annie Laurie” and I will sing it.’
The Guards played ‘Annie Laurie,’ and a German officer stood up on the parapet — the evening sun was red behind him — and sang the old song admirably, with great tenderness. There was applause on both sides.
– Philip Gibbs, Now It Can Be Told, 1920