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:

Dear Herndon:

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.’



Long Time Coming

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

Dante in France

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.

The Sea Devil

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.”

Stocking Money

santa claus bank note

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.

Sans Merci

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

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

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

(Thanks, Vinny.)


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

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

He replied:

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

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

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

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

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

A Muddy Grave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Shoulders

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

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

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