Day 1,001: Welcome To Typo-Town, KS

In pecking about for a fresh topic to tickle the fingertips, it’s important to land one’s literary beak on a morsel of sufficient substance to fill a kilograph when such a task is needed. Today, as I wander once again into the murk of daily writing, I opt instead to snarf down the first pellet I chance upon, even if it should prove to be a salty pebble. With my first click of ‘Random Article’ I was directed swiftly to “Lerado, Kansas.” After nearly seven years of relative inactivity after the end of this project, I’m welcomed back by an entry with four sentences.

One sentence describes the town’s surrounding area as ‘Reno County’. Another tells us which school district would serve the local kiddos. A third sentence claims its post office – called ‘Netherland’ until 1884 – shut down in 1904. And the one snippet of potentially pen-worthy factoidery tells us that Lerado was intended to be named for Laredo, Texas, but someone screwed up and swapped the vowels. It’s a Typo-Town. Neat.

It’s also, as I’d learn after a bit of a deeper dive, a ghost town.

Yay! Ghosts!

There is, as one site explains it, a single occupied home in the town’s mostly-unmarked perimeter, and it boasts foul-language-heavy signage, warning passers-by to keep on moving. This is most likely because said tourists are seldom ghost-town hunters, eager to check out the still-standing schoolhouse or lodge hall / opera house. They mostly swing by to check out the charred remains where once the Peters family home stood. In 1993, its inhabitants – mom, dad and two little kids – were murdered by a random local, the house then set ablaze. They caught the guy and he wound up sentenced to 51 years in prison, but folks love a crime scene don’t they?

I read enough about this gruesome murder to know I have no desire to focus my exploration of this four-sentence town on that one tragic and senseless night. This is not a true-crime site, and besides – they caught the guy. Like, right away. He was, thankfully, a terrible criminal who stood no chance of getting away with it. Fuck that dude. No, I’m more interested in the town itself. What did this place, now the home of one grumpy-ass resident, hope to be when that postal clerk half-assed his job and screwed up the town’s name?

Fortunately, our researching skills here in the 1000Words word-pit have improved over the last seven years. This is how I found myself checking out the Lerado Weekly Ledger from November 4, 1886. The first item that grabbed my attention was the “Local Hash” column, right dead-center down the middle of the front page. This is where local-interest, hard-hitting events are found. For example: “The Ledger is under obligations to Mr. J.O. Coleman for a very fine squash. Mr. C. informed us that he had blackberries during September.”

You can do a lot with a fine squash.

I admire a newspaper bold enough to report the past fruit experiences of the townsfolk it serves. We’ve lost that connection to local media. I have no idea what my neighbors might have grown or purchased six months ago, and dammit I have a right to that information.

Snooping through their trash just ain’t cutting it.

But back to Lerado.

This same front page boasts a hearty prophecy: “THE FUTURE IS GREAT”. Yes, four – count ‘em, FOUR railroads are building toward Lerado. It will be the hub of the Midwest, or whatever Kansas was considered in 1886. The article admits that, sure, things have seemed bleak in Lerado over the last few years, but don’t worry! That’s all behind us! “Lerado is on the highway to prosperity!”

Except that it wasn’t. This little optimistic town, celebrating the grand opening of the Hammel House Hotel and the laying of the cornerstone of its opera house, never landed even one train. By 1888 the front page of their newspaper was mostly taken up by a chapter of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. There are no entries for that paper after January of that year. News items – again, detailing the mundane minutiae of residents’ lives – were now plopped at the back of The Saturday Bee out of Hutchinson. By the end of the 1920s, most mentions of the town were contained within obituaries.

The town was stocking up on ghosts.

There was a spike of interest in the area when oil was discovered in Lerado, but that tapered off in the mid-30s. So what the hell happened? Where were those four railroads? How did Lerado’s destiny go from opera-house-worthy to abandonment?

In the end, the death of the town came largely thanks to Dr. John A. Brady, a Louisville physician who scoped out where the railways were expanding then bet the bank on Lerado. The Missouri Pacific was reaching westward and the Rock Island line was heading southwest, and Lerado was right where they’d meet, creating a transportation hub that could only mean a future metropolis and competing frozen yogurt stands fighting it out in the shadows of skyscrapers and flying cars. The Rock Island folks approached Doc Brady and asked for some aid bonds from the town so that they could finance the railroad, and the Doc said no. Why would the town help? These two railroads were heading this way anyway, and the junction would be beneficial for everyone, right? Right?

History has proven: don’t trust a Brady.

Nope. The Rock Island execs paid for another survey, then swung their line toward Hutchinson instead. Local Hutchinsonians sweet-talked the Missouri Pacific folks to do the same, and that was that. Lerado, that plucky little typo-town with big dreams of prosperity and phallic squashes, was ten miles off the nearest railroad and its real estate market tanked. Doc Brady lost everything and sulked back to Louisville. By 1915, all that remained was the school house and a country store.

There’s undoubtedly a lesson cloaked beneath this little tale, something about blind hubris and one needing to nudge themselves toward a brighter destiny by helping others, but none of that made it into Wikipedia’s scant four sentences. The grizzly murder has mostly faded into a necessary oblivion and the descendants of the folks who had danced and toasted one another at the grand ball that opened that hotel in 1886 likely have no idea they share part of their lineage with Brady’s bogus blunder in a Typo-Town.

Today the population of Hutchinson is around 40,000, and it’s the county seat for Reno County. The population of Lerado is that one guy. Seriously, stay the hell off his lawn.

Day 996: The Greatest Prank In The History Of History

originally published September 22, 2014

“That putz, Bolton. This will totally blow his mind.”

The above may have been uttered between the cool gusts of sharp giggles at a gathering of the Berkeley chapter of E Clampus Vitus, an organization designated either as a “historical drinking society” or a “drinking historical society”, depending on whom you ask. These are folks who are dedicated to the noble history of the American West, though they prefer to cozy up to their history with a frothy glass of smirk. Call them deviant scholars, outlaw students of the distant past and the eternal spirit of yeeha. Practical academics and impractical jokers.

The brass plate left by Sir Francis Drake near the bubbly Pacific coast is little more than a whopping banana peel, left on the ground to trip up one unfortunate mark but soon elevated into an established part of the natural vegetation. The so-called plaque that signifies the terminus of European exploration across our happy little continent is a hoax, a forgery, a one-off gag that exploded into accepted fact.

The lesson here is that history, for all her dates and names and oft-inexplicable motivations, can be a blast. Especially when iniquitous historians with a smirking sense of humor mess it up on purpose.

Herbert Eugene Bolton was one of the most respected historians of American western expansion, the author of a now-commonplace theory that asserts that we should look at colonial expansion across all the Americas holistically, rather than piece by piece. He was a brilliant man, the fantastic mind who established the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley as the preeminent historical resource it is today. He was also a member of E Clampus Vitus. One would expect he’d have been on the lookout for shenanigans.

Bolton was a professor at U of C, extolling upon class after class the wonders of Sir Francis Drake’s journey, and describing the historical brass plate that was believed to have been planted when Drake’s party arrived at the west coast, somewhere north of Alta, California in 1579. Francis Petty, a member of Drake’s party, described the plate in a later retelling of the story, though it had never been uncovered. Bolton’s fellow “Clampers” (as they like to be called) knew that Bolton told all of his students to be on the lookout for the brass plate, and to contact him if they found it. To a group of pranksters, this is an easy invitation.

This is George Ezra Dane. Along with fellow Clamper Charles Wheat, Dane concocted the ultimate prank for Bolton. They enlisted George Barron, the curator of American History at the De Young Museum in San Francisco to design the plate and buy the brass. George Clark, a local appraiser and art critic, hammered the letters onto the plate. Using the historical account that Francis Petty had provided a few centuries earlier, the plate was made to look as authentic as possible. It had to look real in order to fool Bolton.

One last little gag was slipped onto the plate: the letters ECV (for E Clampus Vitus, of course) were painted on the back in paint that would only be visible under ultraviolet light. They dropped the plate in Marin in 1933, fairly close to the spot where it’s believed Drake had landed. It was soon located by chauffeur William Caldeira. Caldeira showed it to his employer (who was a member of the California Historical Society), and stashed it in the car to investigate later. A few weeks later Caldeira found it again, but not wanting to bother with the hassle he simply tossed it by the side of the road in San Rafael. There it remained lost.

For a while.

A shop clerk named Beryle Shinn found it three years later, and through a friend it found its way into Bolton’s possession. By now the conspirators had probably chalked up the prank to a failed endeavor, but for Bolton the fun was just beginning. It was the plate he’d been seeking for decades, the fulfillment of a lifetime of historical academia. He alerted Robert Gordon Sproul, the University’s president, as well as Allen Chickering, the president of the California Historical Society. They immediately made arrangements to purchase the plate for $2500.

Shinn was happy to sell, but he took the plate to “show his uncle” and disappeared for a few days. Chickering panicked, believing they were about to lose a huge find, so he upped the offer to $3500. The plate was purchased.

On April 6, 1937, Herbert Eugene Bolton announced to the California Historical Society that the plate had been found and authenticated by him. With Sproul’s and Chickering’s support, the University and the California Historical Society had just placed their reputations behind the authenticity of this totally bogus plate.

Sure, there were skeptics. Reginald B. Haselden, a specialist in Elizabethan literature, published a heap of criticism about the plate, including its wording and grammar. There was a way to counter each nitpick though, leaving a haze of confusion alongside the sole pillar of emphatic support: the “authentication” provided by Bolton and Chickering.

At this point, the practical jokers couldn’t step forward and confess – far beyond splattering some egg on Bolton’s face, the unveiling of the truth behind the plate would now seriously damage his career. They tried dropping a few hints. One fellow Clamper created a spoof of the plate. Another one published a small press book that actually picked apart every flaw in the plate, and even instructed the reader to check the back for some fluorescent paint.

Bolton didn’t budge. Instead he enlisted Professor Cohn Fink, head of the Division of Electrochemistry at Columbia University, to authenticate the plate. This would do it, thought the conspirators. This will end the prank.

Nope. Fink confirmed the plate’s authenticity. The plate became real, it found its way into textbooks, and copies of it were later given to Queen Elizabeth II in ceremonies when she visited America. The paint on the back was never found. For the records of history, the plate was fact.

Professor James D. Hart was the one who would finally unmask the truth. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen until the early 1970’s, some twenty years after Bolton had passed away, and about 40 years after the prank had been set into motion. He sent the plate for x-ray diffraction, stereo microscopy and metallurgical analysis at Oxford University, then for neutron activation analysis at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. Tests showed the plate was too smooth, contained too much zinc and too few impurities to be Elizabethan English brass. At MIT they examined the edges and determined it had been cut by modern equipment. The jig was up.

After a decade of analyzing the timelines of the people involved, a group of historians announced in 2002 that they had conclusively traced the origins of the brass plate, and identified the pranksters involved (all of whom were long dead).

If nothing else, this story demonstrates how carefully we must pick over every detail of history – how we know it, why we know it, and who figured it out. Also, if ever the opportunity should arise for an amateur historian (such as myself) to be invited to join the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus, one would be a fool to turn the offer down. They sound like a fun bunch of cats.

Day 992: The John Wilkes Booth World Tour

originally published September 18, 2014

When John Wilkes Booth was crouching in Richard H. Garrett’s tobacco barn, listening to Lieutenant Colonel Everton Conger’s orders to surrender, he decided to go out with a bang. He refused the surrender, then once the barn was lit on fire he took a bullet to the neck, delivered by Sergeant Boston Corbett. He was dead by the break of dawn, less than two weeks after he had prematurely terminated the presidency of Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre.

Or was he?

Way out in the sprawling suburbs of historical perception there exists the notion that the man whose life was snuffed to a nub in that barn was actually a man named James William Boyd, a Confederate soldier who looked enough like Booth that his body passed through ten pairs of identifying eyes (not counting the pair that aimed the gun that took his life), as well as an official autopsy. The composers of this theory also posit that the government knew about the mix-up and let it happen. Because where is the fun in a murder without a deep and sinister government conspiracy?

As for the “real” John Wilkes Booth… well, on the off-chance that this is all true, we can say with a relative certainty that Booth was, in fact, this guy:

One day in 1873, some eight years after the furor over the Lincoln assassination had been pressed between the leaves of history, Memphis lawyer Finis L. Bates met and befriended a liquor and tobacco merchant named John St. Helen. It’s good to get to know the man who sells you booze and smokes, and Bates was particularly taken by John’s ability to spout Shakespeare from memory. The two became good friends outside the seller-consumer relationship.

Five years later, John St. Helen was on what he believed to be his deathbed, profoundly ill. He confided in Finis Bates that he was in fact John Wilkes Booth. He asked Finis to advise his brother, Edwin Booth, of his demise. Then he recovered.

In doing so, John did not recant his story. He explained that the man who was killed was a plantation overseer named Ruddy, who had been sent by Booth to retrieve some lost papers in that barn. Then there was the matter of the conspiracy.

Vice-President Andrew Johnson was behind it all, according to John St. Helen. It was an extensive plot that ran all the way to the top. Finis Bates later claimed he didn’t believe his friend, and when John moved to pursue a career in mining in Leadville, Colorado, he let the matter drop. Their friendship eroded through the natural course of time and distance.

This brings us to the late David E. George, who passed away via a self-inflicted dose of strychnine on January 13, 1903. George was a house painter in Enid, Oklahoma, with a penchant for quoting Shakespeare and a colorful, theatrical personality. In 1900, George confessed to Jessie May Kuhn, the local reverend’s wife, that he was in fact John Wilkes Booth. The utterance might have disappeared with David E. George into the earth, except for a  note that was found among his belongings, demanding that Finis L. Bates be summoned in case of his death.

Finis arrived in Oklahoma and confirmed that the body purportedly belonging to David E. George was in fact his old friend, John St. Helen. But with no relatives of either name to step forward and claim the body, it remained in the possession of Enid undertaker William Broadwell Penniman. Rather than bury him, Penniman embalmed the hell out of the body then tied it to a chair, opened its eyes and stuck a newspaper in its hand. Now Booth was a local tourist attraction.

George/St. Helen/Booth sat in his chair, creeping out the local and visiting populace for eight years. Had I been cruising through north-central Oklahoma back then, I don’t know which I would have gawked at more: the mummified corpse of a man who might have been Lincoln’s killer, or the Enid townsfolk who actually believed this was a good idea for a tourist attraction.

After the sensationalism balance had tilted heavily from “wow” to “skeevy”, the body was released to the custody of Finis L. Bates.

Finis had already written the War Department in an attempt to claim the $100,000 bounty that had been placed on Lincoln’s killer back in 1865. That didn’t work, so he did the next best thing: he sent Booth out on tour.

The Booth-mummy had made an appearance at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, and once Finis Bates had taken possession of him, he began to tour the country on the circus side-show circuit. After World War I, Finis tried to encourage Henry Ford to purchase the mummy. Ford, who was in the midst of a libel lawsuit with the Chicago Daily Tribune, and who had been dodging all sorts of flak for having stated that “history is more or less bunk”, was intrigued. After all, corporeal evidence that the history books were completely wrong about the fate of John Wilkes Booth more than a half-century later would soundly back up his critique of history as a whole.

Ford enlisted Chicago journalist Fred L. Black to investigate Finis Bates’ claim to the mummy’s authenticity. In the end, Black advised Henry Ford to keep his $1000 and drop the notion of investing in this theory.

Meanwhile, the mummy soldiered on.

William Evans, the Carnival King of the Southwest, leased the mummy from Finis Bates and kept hauling in the money. After a circus train wreck near San Diego, the mummy was kidnapped; though for the $1000 reward, the kidnapper handed him back to Evans. In the interim, Finis Bates passed away, which enabled Evans to purchase the mummy outright from his widow.

This mummy was not welcome everywhere it went. A group of Union Army veterans threatened to lynch the body. Evans was frequently run out of towns by health officials or disgusted policemen. The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair turned down the exhibit. When Evans died in 1933, the mummy’s timeline gets a little hazy. It was last spotted in a Midwestern carnival sometime in the late 1970’s.

The truth about the fate of John Wilkes Booth is that he probably took a bullet in the neck back in Richard Garrett’s tobacco farm in 1865. Booth’s body was identified by more than ten people who knew him, and the distinctive neck scar and “J.W.B.” tattoo on his left hand sealed it for the officials who performed the autopsy.

That said, there is a miniscule possibility that J.W.B. stands for James William Boyd, and that John St. Helen / David E. George actually was who he said he was. That’s where history gets fun… in the crazy, billowy haze of the maybe.

Day 985: The Greatest Show In The Wild Old West

originally published September 11, 2014

It was the kind of sun-whipped summer day that tended to cook the old west like a Thanksgiving turkey. The Central Pacific Railroad had just rolled into town, and a tall man with a face like sawed oak and fiery red hair leaned casually against a corral fence, watching the passengers disembark. Their faces scanned the local buildings for a place to eat. Few of them noticed the smarmy gentleman in the suit who was crossing the street. But the redhead saw him. He stepped away from the fence and shattered the dusty air.

“There ya are, ya low-down polecat!” he bellowed. The passers-by paused in their tracks. “Ah’m gonna kill ya b’cause of what ya did ta mah sister!” He paused, trying to collect himself. “Mah pore, pore little sister.”

The shorter man was frozen in panic. He didn’t react when the redhead pulled out his gun, cocked it, and fired. The shorter man fell to the street, writhed in pain for a moment, then died. The railway passengers sprinted back onto the train, some women fainted and had to be carried to safety as townsfolk wrestled the gun away from the redhead and dragged him off to jail. The dead man was unceremoniously dragged into the nearest saloon while the terrified passengers remained flat against the train’s floor, afraid to move. Thankfully, the train started rolling once again westward.

After the fervor had passed, the townsfolk relaxed with a hearty laugh. In one swift act of amateur theatre, they had just created the legendary old west.

The town of Palisade, Nevada was founded by a man named Willy East, who was looking for a comfy place in which to settle freed slaves. He had been talking with San Francisco resident-of-note Joshua Norton (who had recently declared himself to be Emperor of the United States), who had directed him toward the vast expanse of available Nevada land. The convenient placement of the railroad, as well as the town’s functional toilet – a feature not yet found aboard rail travel – cranked up the local population of the young town to around 300 in the 1870’s.

It was a picturesque little burg, home to a trio of saloons and a well-placed café beside the railway tracks to provide sustenance to the travelers who were pursuing the American Dream out west. Scoundrels and scammers poked and prodded at passenger wallets, selling them useless salt mines and spinning adventurous (and bogus) tales. But where was the “wild west” they had heard so much about?

Newspapers and the precursors of pulp fiction were spreading gory, windswept tales of outlaws, varmints and scalp-happy Injuns all throughout the eastern states. When adventurous voyagers headed west in the early 1870’s to find town after town of relative calm, some had expressed a smidgen of disappointment. One of the Central Pacific conductors mentioned this to one of Palisade’s residents. And thus, a hoax was born.

The locals decided to give the people what they wanted. Not for profit – it’s hard to hock souvenirs when your customer base is scrambling for their lives – but purely for the reaction. This may be the most fantastic demonstration of prolonged collective performance art in American history.

The villainous gentleman in that initial show was Alvin Kittleby, a resident agent and cattle buyer for a company out east. He always dressed well, and was known as the town dandy – essentially a 19th century hipster. The redhead was a cowboy named Frank West, who worked on a cattle ranch just north of town. Everyone in the town limits was in on the gag, and when it worked so brilliantly, they decided to repeat it.

And repeat it they did. Again and again.

What began as a novelty performance soon became a local obsession. Different storylines were conceived with a variety of outcomes, designed to send people scurrying in a panic, but also to enthrall the onlookers on the train who were bold enough to poke their heads up to sneak a peek out the window. Sometimes it was a personal beef gone awry. On occasion the town was hit with an Indian raid, as the nearby Shoshone tribe (who were on very friendly terms with the townspeople) pitched in and fake-slaughtered the white folk. The bank robbery shootouts were always a hit.

Women and children were being murdered in the streets. Not really, but the theatrical enthusiasm displayed by Palisade’s women and children was equal to that of the men. Every single resident pitched in on a performance here and there. People pitched in to create blank cartridges, which were fired by the thousands. The local slaughterhouse regularly contributed buckets of cattle blood to make the scene more grisly. It was beautiful.

It didn’t take long for the word to spread. Palisade was earning the reputation of being the toughest town west of Chicago. Newspapers across the country were describing the bloodshed, the violence, the senseless killings and Indian slaughters. Editorials raged against the US Army for not stepping in and bringing peace to this blood-soaked landscape. How could they allow these innocent people to die?

In fact, the Army was very much aware of the violence in Palisade. They were also in on the joke. Every living soul within a hundred miles of the town knew what was happening, as did every conductor on the Central Pacific Railroad. The only people being fooled were the passengers, and they were fooled every time.

Sometimes the locals would put on two shows per day. Over the course of about three years they executed more than 1000 performances. The town was too small to host a playhouse or theater, but it was the hidden heart of Nevada thespianism. As for actual crime within the town limits, there was none. Zero. The town didn’t even have an actual sheriff, and the local Eureka County deputy had nothing on his to-do list, apart from whatever contribution he made to Palisade’s faux-fighting industry.

After three years or so, the President of the United States caught wind of Palisade’s reputation, and ordered the Army to step in. This was probably handled via telegraph or with one Nevada-area officer popping in to quietly shut down the festivities, but however it went down, Palisade’s long-time hoax was at an end.

The last train ran through Palisade in 1938, and before long the region was little more than a ghost town. An unidentified bidder purchased the entire swath of land for $150,000 in 2005, but at this time there’s nothing to see but a few building foundations and a plaque to let people know it was there. Unfortunately, the plaque offers not even a hint of the unrivaled creativity and improvisational theatricality that took place on that patch of land back in the 1870’s, where the grisly truths of the wild west came to life – at least in the minds of those who had the good fortune to pass through.

Day 981: The Double-Agent Of Staffordshire

originally published September 7, 2014

Every so often while sifting through the corrugated rubble of history, one lands upon a figure who is a trifle harder to figure out than the rest. Whatever may have spirited his soul this way or that gets lost in the grey ink of facts and dates, leaving (for those of us who care) a certain freedom for speculation.

Was Gilbert Gifford an English hero? Was he a traitor? A coward? His actions directly led to one of British history’s most infamous executions, but the footsteps that led him there may have been driven by precisely the opposite intent. Such is the riddle that four centuries of dust and distortion have thrown across his legacy.

I’d like to paint Gilbert with passionate swirls – not moved by an allegiance to politic or royal hullabaloo, but by the colors of his faith. Not his faith in Catholic dogma, though undoubtedly that old rhythm spent a considerable amount of time tip-tapping upon the inside of his skull. I’m talking about his faith in flesh, in love, and in the non-negotiable immediate.

In short, Gilbert danced to his own boogie.

The 16th century was a sketchy time to be religious in Europe. If you were Catholic, you kept your mouth shut around Protestants and vice-versa. Gilbert Gifford was born to a recusant Catholic landowner in Staffordshire. This label of ‘recusancy’ was given to those who continued to wear their Catholic jerseys long past the time when the Church of England (Anglicanism as we know it today) was chosen to be the home team. It took a certain amount of guts on the part of John Gifford, and to some extent that chutzpah was carried on by his son.

Because of John’s status – he had been a Member of Parliament and an esteemed resident of Chillington Hall, perhaps the most bodaciously named country home in the West Midlands – Gilbert had tremendous access to quality education as a young lad. That’s not to say he excelled at it; after all, he had been expelled from priest school at the English College in Rome. But he did work his way up to the rank of deacon in 1585. That’s right around the time Gilbert met a man named John Savage.

Savage was a student and a former soldier. Perhaps it was Gilbert’s devotion to Catholicism, but for whatever reason, the two of them became friends. John let Gilbert in on a huge secret: he was part of what would come to be known as the Babington Plot. This was an elaborate scheme to assassinate Queen Elizabeth (a protestant and ardent supporter of the Church of England), to replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots (naturally, a Catholic). Mary was presently serving time, a sentence imposed by her cousin, Elizabeth.

John brought Gilbert in on the plot, along with Gilbert’s cousin William Gifford and his buddy, Christopher Hodgson. Gilbert was on board. He travelled to Paris, where the Catholic League was heartily in control of French politics. There he met Thomas Morgan and Charles Paget, two confidants of Mary’s, and two very willing conspirators in Elizabeth’s assassination. We will never know precisely what role Gilbert was to play in the master plan of the Babington Plot, mostly because the guy went and got himself busted.

Sir Francis Walsingham was the head of Queen Elizabeth’s security forces, and was constantly on the lookout for Catholic rousers of potential rabble – and those who were returning home from Ultra-Catholic France were certainly worthy of a bit of questioning. Gilbert was picked up by Sir Francis at the Port of Rye and brought to London for a sit-down. It didn’t take long for Gilbert to flip.

Gilbert agreed to act as a double-agent for the royals. One 20th century historian believes that Gilbert’s true loyalty lay with Queen Elizabeth, suggesting that he’d only been going along with the plot to appease his buddies, and that he himself may have approached Sir Francis and plotted out his double-agent-ness. But I don’t buy it. All evidence points to Gilbert being trapped, like Big Pussy Bonpensiero on The Sopranos. He had no choice but to help Sir Francis bring down the Babington Plotters, simply to save his own pelt from getting roasted.

Under an assumed name (ascribed to him by Sir Francis), Gilbert traveled to Chartley Hall in Staffordshire to visit Mary in her cell. No one knows how he pulled it off, but somehow Gilbert earned Mary’s trust. He agreed to smuggle encrypted letters in and out of prison for her, stashing them in beer barrels. Also, apparently beer barrels were a common fixture in sixteenth century English prisons. Wow, we’re learning heaps of stuff today.

I’d like to think that Gilbert was a little taken with the deposed monarch. She stood for the very same faith to which Gilbert’s father had devoted his soul, even in the face of a grumbling majority of Protestants. She was a woman of power, who apparently never lost touch with the grace and decorum with which she would be expected to reign, should she ever be given another chance to do so. Also, she was a bit of a looker, if those old paintings are any clue. Maybe Gilbert really wanted to help her out – perhaps not to the point of regicide, but who knows?

Except that he gave those encoded letters right to Sir Francis Walsingham. Including the one in which Mary gave assent to the murder of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth.

Once that letter had been decoded, Gilbert knew the Babington Plot was going to fail. He took off for France without Sir Francis’s permission, most likely because he figured that his role in exposing the conspirators would become rather obvious, and his life would be in danger. He was ordained as a priest in Rheims in 1587, the same year in which Mary was executed for her complicity in the plot. There are many question marks floating around the periphery of Gilbert’s fleeing, but it seems to me that he had betrayed his faith, and perhaps his heart. He may have been trying to run away from himself.

One thing we do know is that later that same year, Gilbert’s running led him to a Paris brothel, where he was caught in bed with a woman as well as a male servant of the Earl of Essex. In August of 1589 he was handed twenty years in prison for acting against the interests of the Catholic Church, a sentence considerably harsher than any given to the molesty priests of the past few decades – but that’s a story for another day.

A famine the following year took Gilbert’s life at the young age of 30. The romantic in me wants to believe he died more of a self-broken heart, having sold out the beautiful Queen Mary in order to save his own skin. At least that’s the shade of aqua-blue in which I choose to paint between the biographical lines of Gilbert’s life. He may have been a coward, but his heart was unflinching; four centuries later he merits that smidgen of nobility.

Day 975: All Hail Norton I, Emperor Of The United States Of America

originally published September 1, 2014

For all her achievements and triumphs, America just hasn’t been the same since the good ol’ days when the Emperor ran the show.

It was a brief sliver of eccentric history (or ‘eccentristory’ – I’m copyrighting that title) that should never be forgotten. And for some who live in San Francisco, where Emperor Norton breathed the free air of his glorious domain, it’s a cause worth championing. If nothing else, he was a testament to the spirit of the San Franciscan penchant for enfolding the quirky and unrepentantly goofy into the city’s lore. This wouldn’t have happened in Omaha.

Consider this an education on the potential of the politic of passion, a reimagining of a man’s place in the society that – to his mind – has clipped the wings of his security and left him abandoned in the ether. One cannot be defeated if one is the champion of one’s own self-proclaimed might. Kudos to Emperor Norton for making up his own rules, and Super-Kudos to San Francisco for buying in.

No one knows for certain the details of his origin story, but we do know that Joshua Abraham Norton came to us from somewhere in England via South Africa in 1849 after receiving a hefty bequest of $40,000 from his late father’s estate. He parlayed that money into a successful dance around the real estate market, building his fortune up to a cool quarter-million within a few short years. But Mr. Norton was always on the lookout for the next big opportunity. In this case, it drifted beneath his nose in the form of a news release from China.

For the Chinese, it was a famine. For Mr. Norton, it was money in the bank. China wasn’t exporting any rice during the famine, causing the market price in America to leap from 4 cents per pound up to 36 cents. Mr. Norton found a vessel on its way stateside from Peru, hauling 200,000 pounds of rice in its hold. He offered a whopping $25,000 for all of it, which worked out to about 12.5 cents per pound. It was brilliant – he’d corner the market and bring in a fortune.

<without rice there would be nothing for San Franciscans to -a-roni>

Unfortunately, roughly a gajillion other ships carting rice showed up in San Francisco around the same time, dropping the value of rice down to 3 cents a pound. Mr. Norton tried to void the contract, but it was no use. He declared bankruptcy in 1858 after years of fighting in court, and proceeded to slip out of the city a broken man.

When Mr. Norton returned to San Francisco, he did so with a flourish. Letters were dispatched to all media outlets of note, informing them that he was now Norton I, Emperor of these United States. He felt the current legal and political structures of the nation were inadequate. He called upon representatives of all states to assemble in Musical Hall to welcome him (they didn’t), then began to impart numerous decrees for the various authorities throughout the land to heed (they wouldn’t).

It was the start of an impressive 21-year reign.

On October 12, 1859, Emperor Norton formally dissolved the United States Congress, calling out its fraud and corruption and later demanding that the US Army swoop in and remove all Congressional representatives by force. His decrees were regularly printed in the San Francisco papers. They were harmless fun, and I suppose beneath their inherent silliness was an element of genuine satire.

When the Civil War broke out, Emperor Norton issued a mandate that instructed both the Catholic and Protestant churches to ordain him as Emperor in a public ceremony. He eventually gave up on this, just as he gave up on seeing Congressmen arrested for assembling “unlawfully”, as though they still possessed actual power. The Emperor never gave up on his assumption of power though – in 1869 he aimed to dissolve the Republican and Democratic parties.

Eventually even the good Emperor must have realized the futility of his attempts to alter the state of American legislation, as his proclamations became somewhat fluffier in nature. In 1872 he ordered a $25 fine for anyone who dared to sully the name of his good city by calling it “Frisco”.

The reality is that Emperor Norton was penniless and homeless, living in boarding houses and possessing nothing that would reflect his assumed status. He wore a beaver hat adorned with a peacock feather, along with a brilliant blue uniform decked out with gold-plated epaulettes. He created his own currency, and the finest restaurants in the city were proud to serve him in exchange for this paper. Some mounted brass plaques near their entrance, declaring “by Appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States.”

No play would open in San Francisco without reserving a prime seat for Emperor Norton. He was treated as a celebrity – a real celebrity who has earned the public’s reverence.

In 1867, a policeman decided he’d had enough of the gag, and he arrested Emperor Norton with the intention of having him committed. The public outcry was immense – every paper published a scathing editorial against the act, and before long Police Chief Patrick Crowley ordered the Emperor released, along with a formal apology from the force. Emperor Norton, in turn, offered an Imperial Pardon to the arresting officer.

Beneath the luster and revelry and collective adoration of the Emperor’s antics was some genuine achievement. When a riot threatened to erupt between some anti-Chinese demonstrators and the local Chinese population (this occurred often, and occasionally resulted in some grisly violence), Emperor Norton intervened between the two factions and peacefully recited the Lord’s Prayer until both sides retreated. No one wanted to be the asshole who caused harm to the Emperor of the United States (and Protector of Mexico – he added that title later).

In one of his many decrees, Emperor Norton ordered the formation of a League of Nations to ensure global peace – beating out history by about a half-century. He also felt there should be a bridge and/or tunnel connecting San Francisco and Oakland across the bay, via Goat Island. Both of these came true in the form of the Bay Bridge, which opened in 1933, and the rapid transit Transbay Tube, which was brought to life in 1974. Say what you will about the Emperor, he had vision.

On the evening of January 8, 1880, Emperor Norton collapsed at the corner of California and Dupont Streets, on his way to a lecture. He could not be revived.

Stunned by this loss, the city of San Francisco came together to mourn their nation’s Emperor. This was around the time they discovered his true wealth: about five or six dollars, a single gold sovereign, some fake telegrams from Alexander II of Russia, congratulating him on his forthcoming marriage to Queen Victoria, and some stock in a defunct gold mine.

Emperor Norton’s legacy is one truly worthy of a man who became a living, breathing embodiment of the notion of Freedom of Speech. Mark Twain crafted the character King in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in his honor. Robert Louis Stevenson also incorporated him into his novel The Wrecker. A ceremony is still held at his grave every year.

Perhaps most interesting are the repeated citizen-driven attempts to rename the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge after the Emperor. Despite a tremendous amount of media coverage, this never happened – in fact, former mayor Willie Brown received the honor of having his name splashed on that bridge just last year.

That’s okay – we won’t forget. Long live the Emperor.

Day 974: Punishing The Politicos – Worst Politicians Part 2

originally published August 31, 2014

Every few years – or sometimes sooner than that – those of us in democratic countries who feel compelled to do so will cast our vote in hopes that it might help to steer our nation from the cesspool in which it is presently mired toward a newer, less feces-laden cesspool. Sometimes we succeed. Also, there are times when we watch the news and wonder how anyone with an IQ greater than a puddle of artificial creamer might have voted for the current putz.

A few months ago I compiled a list of what experts have deemed to be the most egregious smudges upon the office of the Presidency of the United States. I met with no dissent in the comments section, perhaps because everyone agreed with the options presented, or maybe because those crappy presidents have also often evolved to become the most obscure and forgotten presidents.

Despite the fact that much of my reading audience is in America, I’m nevertheless going to present a deeper exploration of the obscure today. There have been garbage leaders all over the western world. Just for fun, let’s see who splatters the bottom of the list in some of the Commonwealth nations.

Sir William “Squinty” McMahon took over the top seat in Australia in 1971, an ugly win which oozed from a period of party infighting and disgruntled squabbling. Right away, McMahon’s opponent on the Labor Side was a well-spoken war hero named Gough Whitlam. Every time the two of them traded barbs it was McMahon who skulked away, shamefully coming up short on wit and rhetoric.

McMahon’s policies were concise and consistently wrong. He went on the attack when Whitlam wanted to officially recognize China, then was shown up when US President Richard Nixon swooped in with a visit to do just that. Whitlam pushed for universal health care and an end to Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War – McMahon had to argue on the other side of both. Rising inflation kicked the crap out of the economy, and McMahon cancelled the nuclear power program. Whitlam and the opposition called for an election in December of 1972, and in less than two years after taking office, McMahon was looking for new work.

The guy is at the bottom of every Australian Prime Minster ranking list I could find.

A number of British Prime Ministers land at the bottom of historic polls. There are several to choose from, but today I’m electing to pick on F.J. Robinson, 1st Viscount Goderich, who seems to have stumbled accidently into the Prime Ministership, only to last long enough to screw up what the guy before him had accomplished.

When George Canning died in 1827, the king opted to plunk Robinson into the Prime Minister job. Right away the guy had to deal with the Whigs’ demand for more cabinet representation and Robinson’s knack for helping out his royal pals instead. Canning had put together a coalition of moderate Tories and members of the Whig Party, but under Robinson’s ineffective leadership that coalition collapsed like a tower of day-old croissants, covering the empire with the buttery crumbs of irreconcilable discord.

Even the king knew someone else had to bring together the partisan splinters of government; Robinson resigned after 144 days, and was reportedly outwardly joyful at his liberation from that hellish assignment.

Anthony Eden ends up at or near the bottom of a number of polls as well, primarily because he’s the British Prime Minister who bungled the nation’s involvement in the Middle East. All thanks to that shit that went down in the Suez Canal.

Egypt, who was at this time (1956) playing a lot of friendly racquetball with the USSR, wanted to nationalize the Suez Canal. In response, Israel invaded Egypt, and England and France thrust out their military chests, lobbing bombs, and fighting to keep the canal under western control. Naturally, the US would swoop in on their side and secure a major victory, right?

Nope. America sided with the UN and pushed for England and France to back off. To make a long story ridiculously short, they did just that. For Prime Minister Anthony Eden, this was political careericide. His legacy would show the Suez Crisis as the official moment of deflation from British ‘Empire’ to just Britain, and the loss of the nation’s influence in the Middle Esat. Eden resigned in early January, 1957.

Depending on which list your eyes peruse, you’ll likely find John A. Macdonald, Wilfrid Laurier or William Lyon Mackenzie King at the top of the Canadian Prime Minister Hit Parade. All three were great men (with a noble tip of the chapeau to Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau) with shiny legacies under their belts. But at the bottom of the heap there are two names who seem to consistently dwell in the basement.

One of those is Mackenzie Bowell, who took over when Sir John Thompson passed away in 1894. The first big issue to flop upon Bowell’s desk involved the Manitoba Schools Question. Manitoba wanted to stop funding denominational (Catholic and Protestant) schools, and stick to funding inclusive public facilities. The country (and also the Cabinet) was quite divided over this. Bowell, stern in his resolve, backed legislation that would have forced Manitoba to continue funding their Catholic schools. Then he didn’t.

The Cabinet was battling this out, and Bowell opted not to take a stand but to waver between their arguments, grinding the process of governing to a painful standstill. His Cabinet was so flabbergasted by Bowell’s display of pathetic flip-floppery, they expressed a complete loss of confidence in his leadership. Seven ministers resigned. Bowell was ready to do the same, until the Governor General stepped in and tried to right the ship. Most of the Cabinet returned, but from then on Bowell was in charge on paper only. He resigned at the end of the parliamentary session and fluttered into the crud-pile of history.

That’s right America – up here in Canada we have beaten you in celebrating the rise of a woman to the toppermost political office in the nation. Unfortunately, we really don’t like her that much. Kim Campbell lands at the bottom of almost every poll I could find. She took over when Brian “Hey guys, have a big ol’ tax on everything across the country!” Mulroney stepped down, and Campbell won the party leadership. Her accomplishments?

Nothing. No, seriously – nothing. Kim was appointed Prime Minister in June of 1993, and the next election was to be held that November. She never sat in Parliament, and never contributed anything significant to the governance of the country. She witnessed the annual summer break, then dove head-first into campaigning for the November election. Her campaign was so mishandled, not only did her Conservatives lose to Jean Chretien’s Liberal Party in a landslide, Campbell became only the third sitting Prime Minister in history (and the first since 1926) to also lose the election in her own riding, putting her right out of a job.

I believe I voted for the Natural Law Party that year, as a protest against a slew of unimpressive candidates. Had Kim won, who knows? Maybe she could have governed well, and crawled out from the pitiful shame of this list. We’ll never know.

Day 973: Richard III’s Weird Goodbye

originally published August 30, 2014

A depressingly small amount of great historical tales end up in a parking lot. In the case of Richard III, King of England and the final monarch of the Plantagenet dynasty, that’s exactly where the conclusion was written. A public parking lot – probably the kind of place where young lovers searched for a way across home plate, where despondent laid-off businessmen wept in their Saabs before going home to their families, and where illicit exchanges of cash for drugs no doubt peppered the veil of darkness.

It’s an unlikely closing chapter for a king who spent his final day in a gruesome battle for control of the throne in what would be the blood-splattered climax of the War of the Roses. But deceased winners get sent to the unknown in a flourish of pageantry; the dead on the other side get swept beneath the planetary carpet and forgotten about. And the guy who was in charge of the losing side? It’s fair game for that poor schlub.

The fate of Richard III endured the typical kaleidoscope of historical record, branching out in luminous tales of colorful desecration and mesmerizing hyperbole. But the truth? The real truth? Grab a shovel, move that Miata out of the way and let’s do some digging.

Back in the days before leaders conscripted the poor to fight their battles, Richard III wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. The War of the Roses had been raging for four decades, with the House of Lancaster yearning to snag the crown away from the House of York. Richard was new to the throne, having acted as Lord Protector for his 12-year-old nephew, Edward V until 1483 when it was decided that Edward was just not up to kinging. There was skepticism about Richard: why did Edward and his younger brother disappear suddenly? Why did Richard’s wife die under mysterious circumstances? Was Richard involved?

On the Lancaster side, Henry VII was hoping to take the royal seat at the head of the table. The two men were present on the battlefield during the Battle of Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485, but Richard never lived to see how it ended. The story goes that Sir Rhys ap Thomas delivered the fatal blow, after which Richard was stripped naked, hauled to Leicester and displayed for two days as an example of what cruddy kingery can do to a guy.

What happened next is the big mystery. He was tucked into the ground beneath the Franciscan Friary, and Henry VII paid for a monument to mark the grave. Over time the grave either decayed or was destroyed. One story tells of Richard’s body being exhumed and hurled into the River Soar, his coffin being sold to a local innkeeper for use as a horse trough. Eventually the monastery was leveled, and the land turned into a garden owned by Robert Herrick, the mayor of Leicester. At this point there was no marker left to point to the grave.

Time danced its shuffling steps, and the city modernized. Numerous graves were found when houses went up, and a school was built. An office building was constructed, and the Leicester City Council moved in to call the place home in 1965. The area that was once Robert Herrick’s garden was paved over and turned into a parking lot. Then in 2007, a single-story building on the property was torn down, which gave archeologists the opportunity to do a little digging. This is where things got interesting.

Dr. John Ashdown-Hill, who probably doesn’t always wear that funky hat, tracked down two 17th-generation matrilineal descendants (that’s through the mother’s side) of Richard III’s sister, Anne of York. He felt that if they could dig around and unearth some old bones, perhaps modern DNA testing could confirm the results. In 2009, a woman named Philippa Langley, who worked with the Scottish branch of the Richard III Society (yes, there is such a thing), teamed up with Dr. Hill in hopes of making a kick-ass TV special. If they found Richard III’s bones, it would be a hit. If not, it would be Geraldo digging up Al Capone’s vault. Either way, it’d be watched.

Using ground-penetrating radar, a team tried to pinpoint where exactly the friary had been located. They narrowed it down to two parking lots and an unused school playground. It didn’t take long to get results. Two leg bones were uncovered on August 25, 2012 – the day after they’d started digging. They continued digging to the southwest and uncovered some medieval walls and rooms, as well as a few other bodies. They also learned that the area where the first body had been unearthed was probably the eastern wing of the church where Richard III would have been stashed.

It was looking good. The rest of the body was revealed and brought in for analysis. Definitely an adult male with severe scoliosis, with what looked like an arrowhead in the spine and some severe skull injuries. They weren’t ready to call it a win yet through – they wanted conclusive proof.

Joy Ibsen, one of the maternal descendants who could be linked to Richard III, died in 2008. Her son was instead called upon to provide the DNA swab for testing. It was enough – a DNA match was found between the younger Ibsen, another unnamed maternal-line descendant and the bones under the Leicester parking lot. Further testing would be done, but it looked like a fairly solid bet that they’d found the missing king.

As for the condition of the bones, it appeared that the cause of death was a couple of blows to the head by a well-aimed weapon. There were other injuries as well, but a number of them were written off as “humiliation injuries” inflicted after the king’s death. There was no indication of a shriveled arm, such as the one ascribed to Richard in Shakespeare’s biographical play. But the scoliosis was quite severe, and it’s certainly believable that the specifics of any deformity may have been twisted through the gossiping yammer-mill of history.

Not that the research team was 100% finished with their testing. Radiocarbon dating suggested the body had died at least 25 years earlier than Richard, though mass spectrometry produced evidence that the body had consumed a fair amount of seafood back in the day, which is known to distort the results of carbon-dating. Heads were crammed together and doubts were eventually put to rest. For the purposes of the official record, this was the king.

What to do with the kingly remains was yet another controversy. The Mayor of Leicester said the bones would leave his district “over my dead body.” Some felt the king should be in Westminster Abbey, alongside 17 other English/British kings. Others felt he should be buried at York Minster, where Richard apparently had wanted to be tucked away after his death. The current royal family expressed no opinion. The Leicester crowd won – Richard III now sits beneath a sacred monument in Leicester Cathedral. Much nicer digs than under the parking lot.

It’s hard to fathom how much of a big deal this was to English folks – we North Americans have no basis for comparison. This really shook up the populace; Richard Buckley of the University of Leicester Archeological Services said he’d “eat his hat” if they actually found the body – when they did, he did just that. Well, he ate a hat-shaped cake. The pussy.

There are a lot of other historical mysteries out there, waiting to be discovered. Next time you swing by your local Walmart, it’s worth taking a moment to pause and wonder if there might be something earth-shatteringly important underneath that display of Sham-Wows.. History loves hilarious endings.

Day 971: Forget The Superheroes – This Man Literally Saved The World

originally published August 28, 2014

Look deep into his eyes. Ignore the fact that he might at any moment pitch forward from the weight of all those medals; he deserves your reverent gaze. Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov is very possibly the reason you are alive right now. Depending on how deeply you’re willing to reach into the pocket of his story – and it’s a story of such divine magnificence I’m personally ready to ink it in the history books with the crimson blood of unquestioned truth – Vasili’s stoic glare was once all that stood between us and the apocalypse.

The story of how Vasili derailed a potential nuke-storm is only part of his exceptional life, one that could not possibly fit between the frames of a biopic unless Peter Jackson was around to puff up the length beyond three hours. Part of his life actually did find its way into a Harrison Ford flick (though Ford himself played some other scowling Soviet), but not the part that earned him a spot in today’s kilograph.

Had Vasili not found himself stationed in precisely the correct submarine on that fateful day in 1963, while the Cuban Missile Crisis was doling out the likely ineffective instructions of “duck and cover” to the Western world, the physical landscape of our little planet might be significantly more pock-marked and desolate. But let’s start in the preamble, somewhere around the second act of Kathryn Bigelow’s K-19: The Widowmaker.

The summer of 1961 was a rough one for Vasili. While serving aboard the K-19, scooting around the North Atlantic and performing some just-in-case exercises, the sub developed a nasty leak in its reactor coolant system. The radio had also failed (I could make a joke about why the USSR lost the Cold War here, but that would be too obvious), so that meant the sub was drifting alone with a reactor that was heating up faster than Lewis Black opining about the current state of Fox News.

Captain Nikolai Zateyev ordered his engineering team to build a MacGyver’ed cooling system, which forced the men to interact with the most radiation-heavy part of the sub for an extended period of time. Everyone on board was splashed with radiation, but those guys on the engineering crew were drenched in it, soaked to the bone marrow with murderous isotopes. All seven of them were dead within a month. But where Vasili stepped in was when the crew was about to mutiny.

Zateyev decided to abandon the mission and steer southward to meet up with some diesel submarines so that he could jettison his crew to a less murdery vessel. He also declined the offer by an American sub to swoop in and help, because he didn’t want any Soviet secrets getting leaked. It was the right call, but the crew was incensed, not to mention a little bit on edge from the knowledge that every last one of them had just absorbed a frightening amount of radiation through their skin. Most weapons were tossed from the sub – only Zateyev’s most trusted officers remained armed.

Vasili was one of those officers. Other members of the crew were losing their cool, but Vasili intervened and kept control of the situation, probably saving the lives of everyone on board. Well, everyone except the poor suckers who died within the month. It was for this act of bravery that Vasili was handed a heap of those shiny medals, and it was because of his commendable calm in this shit-storm of fear that he was assigned to be second in command aboard the Foxtrot-class sub B-59 near Cuba the following year – an appointment that very likely saved the world.

On October 27, 1962, the terrifying window of history we now refer to as the Cuban Missile Crisis was in full swing. Eleven US Navy destroyers and the aircraft carrier USS Randolph were scooting around the Gulf of Mexico, hoping they wouldn’t find any Soviet nuclear vessel poking its nose so close to American land. They did spot the B-59, and began dropping some practice depth charges in an effort to force the sub to the surface so they could identify it.

The crew on the B-59 had no idea what was going on. They hadn’t heard anything from Moscow in a few days, and at such a depth they couldn’t receive radio messages from anywhere. For all they knew, those blasts meant they were engaged in a full-on war. Even if they climbed from the depths, the best they could hope for was to click into an American broadcast frequency, which was just as likely to be the new Smokey Robinson record as a news report that could provide any info about a war.

Captain Valentin Savitsky wanted to launch a nuclear torpedo at the American fleet. They were all alone in open water and significantly outnumbered. It was the safest course of action, or so he believed. Political officer Ivan Maslennikov was in agreement. But to take such aggressive action without any official orders required the unanimous approval of all three top-ranked officers, and that included the sub’s #2, Vasili Arkhipov.

Vasili once again kept his head. It also helped that, because of his previous awesomeness he was technically equal in rank with Captain Savitsky, and was also in charge of the flotilla of nearby submarines. The debate ensued – and here is where history takes its little plunge into foggy waters. One witness claims that Savitsky lost his temper a little, but quickly calmed down and the argument was brief. The official record has a more extensive and hostile disagreement occurring between the three officers, with only Vasili standing firm and opting not to launch the first nuclear strike in history against a nation that also had nukes in its arsenal.

Either way, this could have gotten really ugly.

At this point, the sub’s batteries were running low. The air conditioning had given out, so the B-59 was forced to surface. Maybe it was Vasili’s superlative debating skills, or perhaps Captain Savitsky simply saw the logic in not potentially dooming the entire world to crawl around in ash for the next few millennia, but the decision to abort the torpedo launch was reached. The sub turned around and headed home.

Two-against-one. That’s how close we came to World War III that October. Those of us who weren’t alive at that time have no concept of how terrifying it was to live in the shadow of such a horrific threat. I can recall the twilight days of the Cold War, when nuclear war was something kids still talked about in hushed tones, but it’s quite another thing to imagine the realities of life during that Crisis.

And even for those who did live through it – had you any idea of just how close we were to all-out destruction, you might not have slept again until 1965.

Thanks, Vasili.

Day 970: How One Woman’s Bad Advice Helped To Crumble An Empire

originally published August 27, 2014

A modicum of historical investigation, along with a smidge of fact-manipulation in order to build a semi-credible opening sentence has revealed a morsel of data heretofore unknown to me: the Roman Empire – the most mighty and triumphant political juggernaut of the early A.D.’s – was tipped over to a partial crumble, all because some guy listened to his mother.

That may seem like an exaggeration. A slight inflation of documented truth or the set-up for a bit of shtick. But history will back me up on this. By 476, the Roman Empire in the west had been sneezed into debris. It kept up appearances out east for another millennium, but the west had shuffled on to the Middle Ages, where the nightlife was more vibrant, despite the clothes being far less stylish.

History recalls the events of 235 AD as the start of the Crisis of the Third Century. Rome became a land with no leader, and with no one able to pick up a phone and coordinate their collective shit, the Europe-spanning Empire fell into troubled confusion. And the wheels were all set into motion by one guy’s mother, who passed on what could be viewed as some of the crappiest historic advice ever given.

The story begins with Mark Antony, that kook from all those wacky Shakespeare movies. When he was smited by Octavian in 31 BC, the table was set for what’s known as the Pax Romana – a 200 year period of unprecedented peace. The Roman Empire inflated to the Atlantic, deep into the Middle East, and south into Africa, all with relatively little military flexing. Then along came Emperor Alexander Severus.

In 235, Severus and his troops had been repelling a fleet of invading Germanic peoples – the Germanic types never hitched their horse to the Roman Empire’s wagon so these conflicts were fairly commonplace. Severus’s mother was with him, and she suggested he try some diplomacy (which is old-timey speak for ‘bribery’) with the Germanic chieftains so they could end the conflict and scoot back east to deal with the pushy Sasanian Empire in what we now call Iran.

Big mistake.

Severus’s troops weren’t pleased with the bribery of the people they’d really been hoping to slay. They turned on Severus with their swords and just like that, the Pax Romana period came to a swift close.

Nobody had counted on this. There was nothing in place to dictate who would take over driving duties for the mighty Empire, leaving a heap of would-be emperors battling for supremacy. Given that these aspiring leaders were also generals with armies backing them, it meant a serious lapse in border security while squabbles were fought internally. The Empire’s gates were left unguarded.

The Carpians, the Goths, the Vandals and Alamanni – all tribes who called the modern regions of Germany, Poland and Romania home – swept in for some prime pillaging. The Sasanids out east, whom Severus’s army never got around to fighting back, were also a problem. The Empire had a nasty leak.

The Roman Senate had no idea what to do. In 251, the Plague of Cyprian (which was probably smallpox) started creeping across the land, killing off as many as 5000 people a day. General after general was claiming to be the One True Emperor, and over the course of this fifty-year nightmare, the Senate officially accepted no less than 26 men as the guy in charge. For the sake of brevity I won’t list them all.

While the city of Rome was trying to get their mess in some kind of order, the outlying regions were getting fed up with their crumbling society. The internal trade network had all but collapsed, and the Roman economy was being completely abandoned in some areas as the value of their coinage plummeted. Eventually, a handful of industrious local leaders decided to forego the political mess in Rome and start their own solo act. In the late 250’s, the Empire officially split in three.

Out west, the provinces of Gaul, Britain and Hispania (essentially modern-day France, England and Spain/Portugal) formed the Gallic Empire in 258 AD. Two years later the eastern provinces of Palestine, Syria and Aegyptus (or ‘Egypt’ to us common-folk) became the Palmyrene Empire. It was probably the right move for the time, giving some sort of political structure to these regions and maybe a sliver of organization to their armed forces. The Rome-based portion of the Empire lay in the middle, still awash in political kvetching.

Then the Battle of Naissus happened in 269, and the game changed once again. The Goths were trying to elbow their way south into what is now Serbia. Emperor Gallienus (a.k.a Claudius II) led the Roman forces on the attack, and they so successfully repelled the horde of invaders – to the point of pursuing them into Macedonia and slaughtering every last one of them – that the entire self-perception of the Empire shifted immediately. They had someone to cheer for, a leader with genuine chutzpah and military know-how.

This was what the Empire needed. They had a hero in charge once again. Everything might have fallen right back into place immediately had Claudius II not died of that damn Plague of Cyprian the following year.

As cities tightened their urban sprawl and erected walls around their perimeters to stave off this new era of mass invasions, things continued to right themselves in Rome. Aurelian, who had headed up the cavalry during the Battle of Naissus, was appointed the new emperor, and slowly returned the Empire to its feet over his six-year reign. By the time Diocletian took over in 284, things were mostly back to normal – a plan of succession was put into place and Diocletian’s penchant for bureaucracy allowed for the Gallic and Palmyrene Empires to rejoin under the Roman flag.

In the western slab of the Empire, things were never quite the same. Not wholly confident that the state of political disarray wouldn’t return at some arbitrary future date, the locals began paying less attention to the central authority and more time toward handling things themselves. It was a gradual decline that would land in the swampy muck of the Early Middle Ages by the fifth century, while the Roman Empire would continue to thrive in the east for another thousand years.

All because some jackass emperor couldn’t make up his military mind, and decided instead to listen to his mother.