History

An Invisible Map

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Shot down over South Vietnam in 1972, Air Force navigator Iceal Hambleton needed to reach the Cam Lo River but was surrounded by enemy forces who might intercept any radio messages sent to him. After some consultation, rescuers told him to play the first hole at the Tucson National Golf Course. “Before you start be damned sure you line your shot up properly,” they said. “Very bad traps on this hole.”

Hambleton was bewildered at first but came to understand. As an avid golfer he was familiar with a number of American courses, and he had a photographic memory of each hole’s length and layout. The first hole at Tucson was 430 yards long and ran southeast, so he set off accordingly across country, following an imaginary fairway.

This worked. By invoking additional holes from three Air Force bases, as well as a par 3 from Augusta National, rescuers led Hambleton to the river, where a Navy SEAL picked him up.

“Two things kept me alive,” he told Golf Digest in 2001. “The will to live, and my wife. And we’re playing golf Friday.”

Higher Math

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During the hyperinflation that followed World War I in the Weimar Republic, a 5,000-mark cup of coffee could cost 8,000 marks by the time it was drunk. Newspapers published the stupefying multipliers by which prices had risen each day:

Tramway fare: 50,000
Tramway monthly season ticket:
— For one line: 4 million
— For all lines: 12 million
Taxi-autos: multiply ordinary fare by: 600,000
Horse cabs: multiply ordinary fare by: 400,000
Bookshops: multiply ordinary price by: 300,000
Public baths: multiply ordinary price by: 115,000
Medical attendance: multiply ordinary price by: 80,000

By the end of 1923 there were 92,844,720,742,927,000,000 marks circulating in the German economy, nearly 93 quintillion (note the logarithmic scale in the chart above).

This had a curious psychological effect. In December Time reported, “With the price of bread running into billions a loaf the German people have had to get used to counting in thousands of billions. This, according to some German physicians, brought on a new nervous disease known as ‘zero stroke,’ or ‘cipher stroke,'” a “desire to write endless rows of [zeros] and engage in computations more involved than the most difficult problems in logarithms.”

Human minds are not made to comprehend such large numbers. Foreign minister Walther Rathenau called it the “delirium of milliards”: “What is a milliard? Does a wood contain a milliard leaves? Are there a milliard blades of grass in a meadow? Who knows? If the Tiergarten were to be cleared and wheat sown upon its surface, how many stalks would grow?”

Fortunately the madness was stemmed with the introduction of a new currency — in 1924 one could exchange a trillion of the old marks for a single new Rentenmark, and the economy was finally stabilized.

Scoop

Cleveland Press reporter John Raper took a vacation in New Mexico in 1944 and came back with a sensational story — he had discovered a “mystery city” there, a closely policed community at work on some top-secret project northwest of Santa Fe.

Uncle Sam has placed this in charge of two men. The man who commands the soldiers, who sees that the garbage and rubbish are collected, the streets kept up, the electric light plan and the waterworks functioning and all other metropolitan work operating smoothly is a Col. Somebody. I don’t know his name, but it isn’t so important because the Mr. Big of the city is a college professor, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, called ‘the Second Einstein’ by the newspapers of the west coast. …

It is the work of Prof. Oppenheimer and the hundreds of men and women in his laboratories and shops that makes Los Alamos such a carefully guarded city. All the residents will be obliged to remain there for the duration and for six months thereafter and it seems quite probable that many of them don’t know much more about what is being done than you do.

Apparently Raper had driven into the compound to investigate but was escorted closely and allowed to see nothing. He told curious New Mexicans, “I don’t know a bit more about it than I did before I went.” Santa Fe residents whispered that Oppenheimer was building some sort of chemical weapon, an explosive, or “a beam that will cause the motors to stop so that German planes will drop from the skies as though they were paving blocks.” But all of this appeared to be rumor.

Raper published his story in the newspaper on March 13. It provoked an immediate stir among the Manhattan Project authorities, who quashed a followup story in TIME and briefly considered having Raper drafted into the Pacific Theater. But ultimately nothing came of it, and no Axis spy seems to have pursued it. American Institute of Physics science historian Alex Wellerstein discusses the story, and provides the full text with its lurid illustrations, on his Restricted Data blog.

(Thanks, Larry.)

Honorable Prisoners

After John II of France was captured by the English in 1356, he paid 1 million gold crowns for his ransom and promised to pay 2 million more. As a guarantee he offered his son Louis as a hostage. When word came that Louis had escaped, John voluntarily returned to captivity in England, citing reasons of “good faith and honor.” He died there in 1364.

In 1916, after two years in a German prisoner-of-war camp, British Army captain Robert Campbell received word that his mother was dying of cancer. He wrote to Kaiser Wilhelm II asking permission to visit her, and was given two weeks’ leave on condition that he return afterward. Campbell went to England, spent a week with his dying mother, then returned to confinement in Germany, where he remained until the war ended.

“Captain Campbell was an officer, and he made a promise on his honor to go back,” said historian Richard Van Emden, who uncovered the episode while researching his book Meeting the Enemy. “Had he not turned up there would not have been any retribution on any other prisoners. What I think is more amazing is that the British Army let him go back to Germany.”

Sitting Protest

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German shipyard worker August Landmesser openly loved a Jewish woman under the gathering cloud of Nazism in the 1930s. He had joined the party hoping it would help him to find a job, but was expelled when he became engaged to Irma Eckler in 1935. Unwilling to renounce their love, the two were forbidden to marry, prevented from fleeing to Denmark in 1937, and eventually sent to concentration camps.

The photograph above was taken at the launch of the naval training vessel Horst Wessel on June 13, 1936, a year after their engagement. The man in the center, the only one not giving the Nazi salute, is believed to be Landmesser.

Harm’s Way

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On Sept. 9, 1900, the day after a strong storm made landfall on the Texas coast, the U.S. Weather Bureau wired Western Union, Do you hear anything about Galveston?

The first response was We have been absolutely unable to hear a word from Galveston since 4 p.m. yesterday …. But then:

First news from Galveston just received by train which could get no closer to the bay shore than six miles, where Prairie was strewn with debris and dead bodies. About two hundred corpses counted from train. Large Steamship stranded two miles inland. Nothing could be seen of Galveston. Loss of life and property undoubtedly most appalling.

The storm had put the entire city under 8 to 15 feet of water and lashed it with winds reaching 145 mph. With 8,000 dead, it remains the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. Following is the only account known to have been written while the storm was taking place — it’s an unsigned letter by a woman, probably a nurse, who was employed at the John Sealy Hospital:

A.M.
It does not require a great stretch of imagination to imagine this structure a shaky old boat out at sea. The whole thing rocking like a reef, surrounded by water, said water growing closer, ever closer. Have my hands full quieting nervous, hysterical women.

12-noon.
Things beginning to look serious. Water up to the first floor in the house, all over the basement of the hospital. Cornices, roofs window lights blinds flying in all directions.

The scenes about here are distressing. Everything washed away. Poor people trying, vainly to save their bedding, & clothing. Methinks the poor nurses will be trying to save their beds in short order. Now flames in the distance. It is all a grand, fine sight. Our beautiful Bay, a raging torrent.

3 p.m.
Am beginning to feel a weakening desire for something ‘to cling to.’ Should feel more comfortable in the embrace of your arms. You hold yourself in readiness to come to us? Should occasion demand? Darkness is overwhelming us, to add to the horror. Dearest — I — reach out my hand to you. My heart — my soul.

That’s all we have — we don’t know who wrote the letter, or whether she survived the storm (the hospital remained standing).

According to some survivors, we’re lucky to have any accounts at all. “One hour more of that wind would have killed every person on the island,” wrote Walker W. Davis, a salesman who waited out the storm in the Tremont Hotel.

Margaret Rowan Bettencourt, who was 9 years old at the time, remembered that the East End, where her grandmother’s house was located, was largely reduced to splinters. “They never would’ve found her place, but my aunt had a ‘polly’ [parrot] that was up in the attic and the attic didn’t go to pieces. It just sat on the top of the house and the next morning the polly was hollering ‘Pretty Polly. Pretty Polly.’ That’s how they found where they lived.”

Roots

In the old times these isles lay there as they do now, with the wild sea round them. The men who had their homes there knew naught of the rest of the world and none knew of them. The storms of years beat on the high white cliffs, and the wild beasts had their lairs in the woods, and the birds built in trees or reeds with no one to fright them. A large part of the land was in woods and swamps. There were no roads, no streets, not a bridge or a house to be seen. The homes of these wild tribes were mere huts with roofs of straw. They hid them in thick woods, and made a ditch round them and a low wall of mud or the trunks of trees. They ate the flesh of their flocks for food, for they did not know how to raise corn or wheat. They knew how to weave the reeds that grew in their swamps, and they could make a coarse kind of cloth, and a rude sort of ware out of the clay of the earth. From their rush work they made boats, and put the skins of beasts on them to make them tight and strong. They had swords made from tin and a red ore. But these swords were of a queer shape and so soft that they could be bent with a hard blow.

— Helen W. Pierson, History of England in Words of One Syllable, 1884

The Cursing Stone

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Image: Flickr

In 1525, fed up with robbers and highwaymen on the Anglo-Scottish border, Archbishop of Glasgow Gavin Dunbar composed a monumentally comprehensive curse against them:

I curse their head and all the hairs of their head; I curse their face, their brain, their mouth, their nose, their tongue, their teeth, their forehead, their shoulders, their breast, their heart, their stomach, their back, their womb, their arms, their legs, their hands, their feet, and every part of their body, from the top of their head to the soles of their feet, before and behind, within and without.

I curse them going and I curse them riding; I curse them standing and I curse them sitting; I curse them eating and I curse them drinking; I curse them rising, and I curse them lying; I curse them at home, I curse them away from home; I curse them within the house, I curse them outside of the house; I curse their wives, their children, and their servants who participate in their deeds; their crops, their cattle, their wool, their sheep, their horses, their swine, their geese, their hens, and all their livestock; their halls, their chambers, their kitchens, their stanchions, their barns, their cowsheds, their barnyards, their cabbage patches, their plows, their harrows, and the goods and houses that are necessary for their sustenance and welfare.

May all the malevolent wishes and curses ever known, since the beginning of the world, to this hour, light on them. May the malediction of God, that fell upon Lucifer and all his fellows, that cast them from the high Heaven to the deep hell, light upon them.

May the fire and the sword that stopped Adam from the gates of Paradise, stop them from the glory of Heaven, until they forebear, and make amends.

May the evil that fell upon cursed Cain, when he slew his brother Abel, needlessly, fall on them for the needless slaughter that they commit daily.

May the malediction that fell upon all the world, man and beast, and all that ever took life, when all were drowned by the flood of Noah, except Noah and his ark, fall upon them and drown them, man and beast, and make this realm free of them, for their wicked sins.

May the thunder and lightning which rained down upon Sodom and Gomorrah and all the lands surrounding them, and burned them for their vile sins, rain down upon them and burn them for their open sins.

May the evil and confusion that fell on the Gigantis for their opression and pride in building the Tower of Babylon, confound them and all their works, for their open callous disregard and oppression.

May all the plagues that fell upon Pharaoh and his people of Egypt, their lands, crops and cattle, fall upon them, their equipment, their places, their lands, their crops and livestock.

May the waters of the Tweed and other waters which they use, drown them, as the Red Sea drowned King Pharaoh and the people of Egypt, preserving God’s people of Israel.

May the earth open, split and cleave, and swallow them straight to hell, as it swallowed cursed Dathan and Abiron, who disobeyed Moses and the command of God.

May the wild fire that reduced Thore and his followers to two-hundred-fifty in number, and others from 14,000 to 7,000 at anys, usurping against Moses and Aaron, servants of God, suddenly burn and consume them daily, for opposing the commands of God and Holy Church.

May the malediction that suddenly fell upon fair Absalom, riding through the wood against his father, King David, when the branches of a tree knocked him from his horse and hanged him by the hair, fall upon these untrue Scotsmen and hang them the same way, that all the world may see.

May the malediction that fell upon Nebuchadnezzar’s lieutenant, Holofernes, making war and savagery upon true Christian men; the malediction that fell upon Judas, Pilate, Herod, and the Jews that crucified Our Lord; and all the plagues and troubles that fell on the city of Jerusalem therefore, and upon Simon Magus for his treachery, bloody Nero, Ditius Magcensius, Olibrius, Julianus Apostita and the rest of the cruel tyrants who slew and murdered Christ’s holy servants, fall upon them for their cruel tyranny and murder of Christian people.

And may all the vengeance that ever was taken since the world began, for open sins, and all the plagues and pestilence that ever fell on man or beast, fall on them for their openly evil ways, senseless slaughter and shedding of innocent blood.

I sever and part them from the church of God, and deliver them immediately to the devil of hell, as the Apostle Paul delivered Corinth.

I bar the entrance of all places they come to, for divine service and ministration of the sacraments of holy church, except the sacrament of infant baptism, only; and I forbid all churchmen to hear their confession or to absolve them of their sins, until they are first humbled by this curse.

I forbid all Christian men or women to have any company with them, eating, drinking, speaking, praying, lying, going, standing, or in any other deed-doing, under the pain of deadly sin.

I discharge all bonds, acts, contracts, oaths, made to them by any persons, out of loyalty, kindness, or personal duty, so long as they sustain this cursing, by which no man will be bound to them, and this will be binding on all men.

I take from them, and cast down all the good deeds that ever they did, or shall do, until they rise from this cursing.

I declare them excluded from all matins, masses, evening prayers, funerals or other prayers, on book or bead; of all pigrimages and alms deeds done, or to be done in holy church or be Christian people, while this curse is in effect.

And, finally, I condemn them perpetually to the deep pit of hell, there to remain with Lucifer and all his fellows, and their bodies to the gallows of Burrow moor, first to be hanged, then ripped and torn by dogs, swine, and other wild beasts, abominable to all the world.

And their candle goes from your sight, as may their souls go from the face of God, and their good reputation from the world, until they forebear their open sins, aforesaid, and rise from this terrible cursing and make satisfaction and penance.

As part of Carlisle’s millennium celebrations in 2001, local artist Gordon Young carved 383 words of the curse into a granite boulder. Since then, local livestock herds have been wiped out by foot-and-mouth disease, a devastating flood has struck the city, factories have closed, and the Carlisle United soccer team dropped a league. Jim Tootle, a local councillor who blamed these misfortunes on the revived curse, himself died suddenly in 2011.

“It is a powerful work of art but it is certainly not part of the occult,” Young insisted. “If I thought my sculpture would have affected one Carlisle United result, I would have smashed it myself years ago.”

(Thanks, NMN.)

The Speed of Sound

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When the Erie Canal was opened on Oct. 26, 1825, the fact was known in New York City, 425 miles away, within 81 minutes. This was before the advent of radio or telegraph. How was it done?

Cannons were placed along the length of the canal and the Hudson River, each within earshot of the last. When the crew of each cannon heard the boom of its upstream neighbor, it fired its own gun.

As a result, New Yorkers knew within an hour and half that they had a navigable route to the Great Lakes — the fastest news dispatch, to that date, in world history.

10/07/2013 Wait, that last bit ain’t right — Claude Chappe’s semaphore telegraph covered 120 miles in 9 minutes in 1792. (Thanks, Michael and Lorcan.)

A Bad Night

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San Francisco reporter James Hopper got to bed at 3 a.m. on April 18, 1906, after a night at the opera. After two hours of sleep he felt himself suddenly shaken “like a fish in a frying-pan”:

I got up and walked to the window. I started to open it, but the pane obligingly fell outward and I poked my head out, the floor like a geyser beneath my feet. Then I heard the roar of bricks coming down in cataracts and the groaning of twisted girders all over the city, and at the same time I saw the moon, a calm, pale crescent in the green sky of dawn. Below it the skeleton frame of an unfinished sky-scraper was swaying from side to side with a swing as exaggerated and absurd as that of a palm in a stage tempest.

Just then the quake, with a sound as of a snarl, rose to its climax of rage, and the back wall of my building for three stories above me fell. I saw the mass pass across my vision swift as a shadow. It struck some little wooden houses in the alley below. I saw them crash in like emptied eggs and the bricks pass through the roof as through tissue paper.

The vibrations ceased and I began to dress. Then I noted the great silence. Throughout the long quaking, in this great house full of people I had not heard a cry, not a sound, not a sob, not a whisper. And now, when the roar of crumbling buildings was over and only a brick was falling here and there like the trickle of a spent rain, this silence continued, and it was an awful thing. But now in the alley someone began to groan. It was a woman’s groan, soft and low.

Jacob Levinson, a director of Fireman’s Fund, weathered the quake with his family at 2420 Pacific Avenue. He wrote later, “I am frequently asked whether I was badly frightened by the shaking, to which I invariably reply that I had passed the point of being frightened, exactly as one might on a sinking vessel in mid-ocean when fully alive to the inevitable. My only thought was to get the family together so that when the house went down we should all go together.”

Aloft Over London

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Vincenzo Lunardi undertakes the first aerial voyage in England, Sept. 14, 1784:

When the thermometer was at fifty, the effect of the atmosphere and the combination of circumstances around, produced a calm delight, which is inexpressible, and which no situation on earth could give. The stillness, extent, and magnificence of the scene, rendered it highly awful. My horizon seemed a perfect circle; the terminating line several hundred miles in circumference. This I conjectured from the view of London; the extreme points of which, formed an angle of only a few degrees. It was so reduced on the great scale before me, that I can find no simile to convey an idea of it. I could distinguish Saint Paul’s and other churches, from the houses. I saw the streets as lines, all animated with beings, whom I knew to be men and women, but which I should otherwise have had a difficulty in describing. It was an enormous beehive, but the industry of it was suspended. All the moving mass seemed to have no object but myself, and the transition from suspicion, and perhaps contempt of the preceding hour, to the affectionate transport, admiration and glory of the present moment, was not without its effect on my mind. I recollected the puns on my name, and was glad to find myself calm. I had soared from the apprehensions and anxieties of the Artillery Ground, and felt as if I had left behind me all the cares and passions that molest mankind.

See Eavesdropping.

The Titanic Orphans

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michel_Marcel_Navratil

Among the survivors of the Titanic were two boys who were unclaimed by any adult. They were very young, 2 and 3 years old, and they spoke no English, so the two became a brief media sensation as authorities sought to locate their parents.

They turned out to be Edmond and Michel Navratil, sons of a French tailor who had spirited them away from their mother and booked a passage under an assumed name. When the ship hit the iceberg, “He dressed me very warmly and took me in his arms,” Michel recalled. “A stranger did the same for my brother. When I think of it now, I am very moved. They knew they were going to die.”

“I don’t recall being afraid,” Michel said. “I remember the pleasure really of going ‘plop’ into the lifeboat.” A woman in their boat took charge of the orphans when they reached safety, and eventually their mother in France read the news reports and claimed them. Michel grew up to be a professor of philosophy and died in 2001, the last male survivor of the sinking.

“I died at 4,” he once said. “Since then I have been a fare-dodger of life. A gleaner of time.”

Oops

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In January 1961, a B-52 Stratofortress began leaking fuel near Goldsboro, N.C., and the crew were forced to eject before they could reach Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

They watched as the plane descended toward the tobacco farmland below carrying two 3.8-megaton nuclear weapons. As the plane broke up, it dropped both of them. One smashed into a muddy field, but the other deployed a parachute to slow its descent and activated five of its six arming mechanisms.

It stopped short of detonating, which is good, because it packed more than 250 times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb.

“How close was it to exploding?” asked disposal team commander Lt. Jack B. ReVelle afterward. “My opinion is damn close. You might now have a very large Bay of North Carolina if that thing had gone off.”

Only three years earlier, a similar mishap had occurred over Georgia.

For the Record

brabazon pig

On Nov. 4, 1909, English pilot John Moore-Brabazon put a pig in a basket, tied it to a wing, and took off.

The basket read I AM THE FIRST PIG TO FLY.

Roughing It

The Duke of Wellington forbade officers to carry umbrellas into battle. On Dec. 10, 1813, during the Peninsular War, he saw a group of Grenadier Guards sheltering from the rain and sent an angry message: “Lord Wellington does not approve of the use of umbrellas during the enemy’s firing, and will not allow the gentlemen’s sons to make themselves ridiculous in the eyes of the army.” He later reproved their commander, saying, “The Guards may in uniform, when on duty at St. James’s, carry them if they please, but in the field it is not only ridiculous but unmilitary.”

Spectacles were not allowed in the British army until 1902. “There is little doubt that England will soon realize that she must take her place in company with the Continental people and furnish glasses as they do,” the Medical News had opined that March. It quoted ophthalmologist John Grimshaw, who had asked invalided South African soldiers whether their eyes had given them trouble in shooting on the veldt.

“Fightin’ all day, sir, and never saw a Boer,” one had replied. “Yes, sir, we simply blazed away at the kopjes on the chance of hittin’ a Boer or two.”

Get Out of Jail Free

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In 1941, as the British War Office searched for ways to help Allied prisoners escape from German POW camps, it found an unlikely partner: John Waddington Ltd., the U.K. licensee for Monopoly. “Games and pastimes” was an approved category of item to be included in care packages sent to captured soldiers, so Waddington’s set about creating special sets to be sent to the camps.

Under the paper surface of each doctored board was a map printed on durable silk showing “escape routes from the particular prison to which each game was sent,” Waddington’s chairman Victor Watson told the Associated Press in 1985. “Into the other side of the board was inserted a tiny compass and several fine-quality files.” Real French, German, and Italian currency was hidden in the stacks of Monopoly money.

MI-9, the intelligence division charged with helping POWs escape, smuggled the games into prison camps, where prisoners would remove the aids and then destroy the sets in order to prevent their captors from divining the scheme.

“It is not known how many airmen escaped thanks to these Monopoly games,” writes Philip Orbanes in The Game Makers, his 2004 history of Parker Brothers, “but 35,000 POWs did break out of prison camps and reach partisans who helped them to safety.”

(Thanks, Ron.)

Private Exit

Elbert Hubbard died on the Lusitania. Ernest Cowper, a survivor of the sinking, described the writer’s last moments in a letter to Hubbard’s son the following year:

I can not say specifically where your father and Mrs. Hubbard were when the torpedoes hit, but I can tell you just what happened after that. They emerged from their room, which was on the port side of the vessel, and came on to the boat-deck.

Neither appeared perturbed in the least. Your father and Mrs. Hubbard linked arms — the fashion in which they always walked the deck — and stood apparently wondering what to do. I passed him with a baby which I was taking to a lifeboat when he said, ‘Well, Jack, they have got us. They are a damn sight worse than I ever thought they were.’

They did not move very far away from where they originally stood. As I moved to the other side of the ship, in preparation for a jump when the right moment came, I called to him, ‘What are you going to do?’ and he just shook his head, while Mrs. Hubbard smiled and said, ‘There does not seem to be anything to do.’

The expression seemed to produce action on the part of your father, for then he did one of the most dramatic things I ever saw done. He simply turned with Mrs. Hubbard and entered a room on the top deck, the door of which was open, and closed it behind him.

It was apparent that his idea was that they should die together, and not risk being parted on going into the water.

Tanya

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In August 1942 a students’ nursing brigade discovered 12-year-old Tanya Savicheva, weak with hunger, living alone in an apartment in Leningrad, which had been besieged by Hitler since September 1941. She had kept this diary:

  1. Zhenya died on December 18, 1941, at twelve noon.
  2. Grandma died on January 25, 1942, at three in the afternoon.
  3. Leka died on March 17, 1942, at five o’clock in the morning.
  4. Uncle Vasya died on April 13, 1942, at two o’clock at night.
  5. Uncle Lesha on May 10, 1942, at four o’clock in the afternoon.
  6. Mama died on May 13, 1942, at 7:30 in the morning.
  7. The Savichevs are dead.
  8. Everyone is dead.
  9. Only Tanya is left.

The nurses evacuated her along the narrow lifeline that had been opened that summer by the Soviet army and placed her in an orphanage in a nearby village, but she died there, probably of chronic dysentery, in July 1944. The diary is kept today in the St. Petersburg Museum of History.

An Ancient Mystery

Around 1275, a native culture known as the Gallina vanished from northern New Mexico. And almost every Gallina skeleton ever found has been that of someone brutally murdered. No one knows why.

“[Someone] was just killing them, case after case, every single time,” U.S. Forest Service archaeologist Tony Largaespada told National Geographic News in 2007.

Seven skeletons found in a remote canyon paint a typical picture — one had a fractured skull, forearm, jaw, thighbone, pelvis, and several broken ribs; another bore cut marks on the upper arm that suggested blows from an ax. A 2-year-old child had had its skull crushed.

In other cases the victims’ necks have been broken, and the bodies are commonly thrown into a house, which is then burned to the ground.

Possibly this was a genocide, or possibly internecine conflict within the Gallina. Either could have been exacerbated by a drought that is known to have gripped the area around this time. But, so far, no one knows the reason.

Planning Big

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When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, it interrupted one of the most ambitious building projects in history. Situated near the Kremlin, the Palace of the Soviets would have commemorated the founding the U.S.S.R. with a 21,000-seat congress hall, 100 stories of administrative offices, and a crowning statue of Lenin 75 meters tall.

It would have been both the largest and the tallest building in the world. But only the foundation had been built when the war intervened, and the frame was disassembled for its steel. Construction never resumed, and in the 1960s the site was turned into an open-air swimming pool. This must symbolize something.

The Dumbbell Cipher

In 1777, British general Sir Henry Clinton sent this message to his fellow officer John Burgoyne, lamenting that he’d be unable to join him in a plan to divide the colonies along the Hudson River:

dumbbell cipher 1

This was a ruse — Clinton’s real meaning can be revealed by applying a mask:

dumbbell cipher 2

Historians aren’t certain whether the message reached Burgoyne or influenced his decisions. As it happened, Clinton didn’t participate in the conflict, and Burgoyne lost the Battle of Saratoga, the turning point of the war.

Plan B

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As a boy Harry Truman practiced piano for two hours a day. “My choice early in life was either to be a piano player in a whorehouse or a politician,” he said later. “And to tell the truth, there’s hardly any difference.”

At age 12 he attended a concert by Paderewski. “And I was studying the Minuet by Paderewski. And when he got through with his concert — which was a wonder — he played that Chopin A-Flat Waltz, Opus 42, which has always been a favorite of mine. And he played the waltz rendition of the Blue Danube, and so on.”

“When we went back behind the scenes, [my teacher] took me with her, and it almost scared me to death. She told him I didn’t know how to make ‘the turn’ in the minuet, and he said, ‘Sit down,’ and he showed me how to do it. I played it at Postdam for old Stalin. I think he was quite impressed.”

He gave up piano because “it was a sissy thing to do. So I just stopped. And it was probably all for the best. I wouldn’t ever have been really first-rate. A good music-hall piano player is about the best I’d have ever been. So I went into politics and became president of the United States.”

Better Safe

To give his “Infamy” speech on the day after Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt rode to the Capitol in a car owned by Al Capone.

The Secret Service was concerned about assassination attempts, and Roosevelt’s regular state car had no protective features. So the president made use of Capone’s heavily armored 1928 Cadillac 341A Town Sedan, which the Treasury Department had impounded after the gangster’s arrest.

(Thanks, Ron.)

The Football Charge

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On July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, British Army captain Wilfred Nevill needed a way to keep the East Surrey Regiment’s B Company organized and advancing toward the German trenches. He had been told that continuous shelling had left nothing alive in the German lines, but night patrols had shown him this wasn’t true.

So Nevill produced four footballs, one for each of his platoons to kick across no man’s land as they charged the German position.

Private L.S. Price of the 8th Royal Sussex, who was looking on, recalled, “As the gunfire 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.”

The four platoons followed suit, kicking their balls continuously across 300 yards of ground to reach the German trenches. Twenty thousand British soldiers were killed that day, including Nevill, who was shot when they reached the barbed wire, but his company gained its objective. The Daily Mail commemorated their charge with a poem:

On through the hail of slaughter,
Where gallant comrades fall,
Where blood is poured like water,
They drive the trickling ball.
The fear of death before them
Is but an empty name;
True to the land that bore them,
The Surreys played the game.

Two of the footballs have been recovered. One is in the National Army Museum, the other at the Queen’s Regiment Museum, Howe Barracks, Canterbury.